Elon Musk offers a $100 million prize for carbon capture

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, now the world’s richest person with a net worth north of $200 billion, announced on Twitter that he plans to give away $100 million of it as a prize for the “best carbon capture technology.”

He added in a subsequent tweet that he’ll provide more details next week, so it’s not yet clear how such a contest will work or even what technologies might quality. Carbon capture can refer to means of preventing greenhouse gas pollution from escaping power plants and factories, or various ways of pulling it out of the atmosphere.

Some startups are developing so called direct-air capture machines that pluck carbon dioxide molecules from the air, which can then be stored underground or used to create carbon-neutral fuels. Other groups are exploring ways of using minerals, trees, plants and soil to pull down the greenhouse gas.

Neither on-site carbon capture or air removal, however, are happening on large scales today, principally because they’re highly expensive and there’s limited value for the captured gas today. But more money and attention is flowing into each of these areas as the dangers of climate change grow.

Climate models show that vast amounts of carbon removal will be necessary to prevent really dangerous levels of global warming, given how much we’ve emitted and how slowly we’re moving away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, on-site carbon capture tools may offer promising ways of cleaning up certain tricky sectors, like cement and steel production, or to provide carbon-free electricity from natural gas plants when intermittent solar and wind sources flag.

A sharply rising share of nations and corporations are banking on some level of carbon capture and removal as part of their plans to zero out emissions in the coming decades, creating a growing reliance on technologies and methods that remain expensive or unproven – and thus an imperative to accelerate progress in these spaces.

Musk is only the latest to offer up funds to the field, as an award or an investment. A year ago, Microsoft announced plans to create a $1 billion fund for “carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies,” as it looks to cancel out its entire historic emissions. Direct-air capture startups like Climeworks, Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat have all raised at least tens of millions of dollars as well. And the CarbonX prize has offered $20 million in prizes to companies developing ways to incorporate carbon dioxide into products, in an effort to create bigger markets and greater value for the commodity gas.

Another $100 million could certainly help whatever venture, or ventures, clinch Musk’s prize. But it will also only go so far. Carbon Engineering, for instance, has previously said one full-scale direct-air capture plant could cost $300 million to $500 million.

Money aside, however, one thing Musk is particularly talented at is drawing attention. And this is a space in need of it.

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