Monday, November 2, 2015

The other side of the CARBON XPRIZE
I was exited when I first heard about the newest XPRIZE.  XPRIZE as an organization is a very forward looking innovation engine, that with generous donation harnesses the energy of competition to advance technology. I was looking forward reading about the newest addition to the great lineup of previous prizes, while recalling the first Ansari XPRIZE which achieved suborbital space flight in reusable vehicle.
The new, $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is solely focused on finding a new and innovative use for CO2 emitted by combustion of fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas. It hopes to financially motivate finding a way to mitigate CO2 emissions, convert them into valuable products and in the process reduce the cost of managing CO2. I am assuming that the new technologies will be tested at the NRG coal power generation plant in U.S. and at the natural power generation (co-generation) plant in oil sands operations in Alberta, Canada.

Upon further reading and as the focus of this prize is on CO2 alone, I am somewhat disappointed as I see major flaws in the whole premise behind this competition. As I see it there is a high probability that if it is successful, we may find ourselves creating an even a larger problem on our hands...remember...any time we create energy by combustion we create both, GHG emissions and air pollution. We actually have two major problems we need to deal with.

Air pollution immediately and directly impacts human health, and has direct financial consequences. It is not easy to make a direct connection between respiratory and other health problems and pollution originating from electric power generation, ICE transportation, flaring and industrial activities involving combustion. At the same time, there are a number of studies showing that pollution is an immediate problem that should not be neglected and has direct financial consequences. More on the impact of air pollution can be found in A Costly Diagnosis, Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health, March 2013 or Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.

CO2 molecule
It is important to understand that it is a real challenge to deal with CO2 regardless of its origin. It is typically created by oxidization (combustion), has low energy as it is effectively a "spent fuel" and to dissociate it or to convert it to something else requires an external energy supply.

For the power generator or an oil sands producer the Carbon XPRIZE is potentially the beginning of a great story. It shows initiative, willingness and if it is successful an opportunity to maintain status quo of existing power generation and oil production. As we will require more energy to convert CO2 into something useful, this additional energy will come from fossil fuels. But why not use renewable sources of energy? Because if we produce renewable energy, it is much better to use it to directly benefit the end user and skip the fossil fuels altogether.  Using fossil fuels to mitigate GHG emissions from fossil fuels makes sense for oil producers as it will maintain demand for oil, gas and coal, create social acceptance and slow-down the transition to a more sustainable future.  
However, the end result will be not very good for you, and me and our children. GHG emissions may be partially mitigated while air pollution and everything that comes with it will accelerate. This is the simple reason that the Carbon XPRIZE is not a very good idea. Instead efforts should be redirected to find more sustainable uses for hydrocarbons.

If I would have $10M to spare today, I would propose the.....
Green Plastics XPRIZE for developing a small scale process to make environmentally friendly plastics directly from crude oil, without combustion and fresh water, easily recyclable, traceable, and moldable without harmful plasticizers. 

Today, we can extract hydrocarbons from the ground without emissions, pollution and fresh water (green hydrocarbons), yet no one is doing it because it would be more expensive and there is no social, political or regulatory will. But at some point in the not too distant future, we will, and having green hydrocarbons will help in the transition for the oil and gas industry. I cannot wait for the day when I can go to the local microfactory (like Local Motors) and 3D print all what I need from locally made plastic pellets created without emissions and pollution with both virgin and recycled green hydrocarbons.

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