XPRIZE finalists find novel ways to convert CO2 emissions into plastics precursors, valuable products

XPRIZE has unveiled the 10 teams advancing to the final round in the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. This four-and-a-half-year global competition challenges teams to transform the way the world addresses carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions via breakthrough circular carbon technologies that convert carbon dioxide emissions into valuable products.

The 10 finalists, each of which takes home an equal share of a $5 million milestone prize, were revealed April 9 at Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Future of Energy Summit in New York City.

XPRIZE finalists
The 10 teams advancing to the final round in the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE were announced at Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Future of Energy Summit.

 Ranging from carbon capture entrepreneurs and start-ups to academic institutions and companies that have been tackling the challenge for more than a decade, the finalists hail from five countries and have already demonstrated conversion of CO2 into a wide variety of products, such as enhanced concrete, liquid fuels, plastics and carbon fiber. The universe of potential CO2-based products crosses a variety of energy sectors, industrial processes and consumer products. Each team passed a first-round evaluation based on the amount of CO2 converted into products, as well as the economic value, market size and uptake potential of those products.

“These teams are showing us amazing examples of carbon conversion and literally reimagining carbon. The diversity of technologies on display is an inspiring vision of a new carbon economy,” said Dr. Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE Senior Director of Energy and Resources and prize lead. “We are trying to reduce CO2 emissions by converting them into useful materials, and do so in an economically sustainable way.” 

Innovative work by teams worldwide is showing promise in taking waste CO2 and repurposing it into valuable materials for the plastics industry: Transforming gas into a host of plastic precursor chemicals and plastic end-products that can used in production as well as on the retail side. The ongoing work is part of the $20 million NRG Cosia Carbon XPRIZE. The groups are involved in all phases of production processing and manufacture. 

“We’re talking about a context in which there is a build-up of CO2 from industrial activity,” Extavour explained to PlasticsToday. “One pathway to address the excess of CO2 is to recycle existing CO2 into things we can use. The things we consider a waste can then be an asset—a feedstock for other materials such as plastic.” 

Extavour said they define excess CO2 as post-combustion CO2 under the premise that too much CO2 is a problem. “We’re challenging people to transform this excess CO2 into an asset using any technology possible, including chemical, biological, etc.,” he explained. “The idea is that the team that can use the most CO2 by turning it into a product will win.”

Taken into account will be the cost to capture the CO2, the energy and money used to manufacture the product, and the water and land resources required. 

“We know it can be done—we can chemically convert CO2 into products—but can it be done economically? That’s the big challenge,” Extavour noted. “Also, can it address a market need? That’s a pathway to scaling the economics.”

The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE finalists were chosen from a field of 27 semifinalists by an independent judging panel of eight international energy, sustainability and CO2 experts. The competition is divided into two parallel tracks, with five teams competing in each: 

The Wyoming Track includes five teams that will demonstrate conversion of CO2 emissions at a coal-fired power plant in Gillette, WY. The teams are:

  • Breathe (Bangalore, India). Led by Dr. Sebastian Peter, the team is producing methanol, a common fuel and petrochemical feedstock, using a novel catalyst. 
  • C4X (Suzhou, China). Led by Dr. Wayne Song and Dr. Yuehui Li, the team is producing chemicals and bio-composite foamed plastics.
  • Carbon Capture Machine (Aberdeen, UK). Led by Dr. Mohammed Imbabi, the team is producing solid carbonates with applications to building materials.
  • CarbonCure (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada). Led by Jennifer Wagner, the team is producing stronger, greener concrete. 
  • Carbon Upcycling UCLA (Los Angeles, CA). Led by Dr. Gaurav Sant, the team is producing building materials that absorb CO2 during the production process to replace concrete. 

Teams competing in the Wyoming track will test their technologies at the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), a cutting-edge carbon research facility in Gillette, WY, co-located with the Dry Fork Station coal power plant.

The Alberta Track includes five teams that will demonstrate conversion of CO2 emissions at a natural gas-fired power plant in Alberta, Canada. They are:

  • C2CNT (Ashburn, VA). Led by Dr. Stuart Licht, the team is producing carbon nanotubes. 
  • Carbicrete (Montreal, QC, Canada). Led by Dr. Mehrdad Mahoutian, the team is producing cement-free, carbon-negative concrete that uses waste from steel production as an alternative to traditional cement.
  • Carbon Upcycling Technologies (Calgary, AB, Canada). Led by Apoorv Sinha, the team is producing enhanced graphitic nanoparticles and derivatives with applications in polymers, concrete, epoxies, batteries and pharmaceuticals.
  • CERT (Toronto, ON, Canada). Led by Dr. Alex Ip of the Sargent Group at the University of Toronto, the team is producing building blocks of industrial chemicals.
  • Newlight (Huntington Beach, CA). Led by Mark Herrema, the team uses biological systems to produce bioplastics.

Teams competing in the Alberta track will test their technologies at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre, a new carbon conversion research hub co-located with the Shepard Energy Centre natural gas power plant in Calgary. 

To earn a place in the finals, the semifinalist teams had to demonstrate their technologies at pilot scale at a location of their choosing. Over the course of a 10-month period, they were challenged to meet minimum technical requirements and were first audited by independent verification partner Southern Research. The teams were then evaluated by the judges based on how much CO2 the team converted into products; the economic value, market size and CO2 uptake potential of those products; the overall CO2 footprint of their process; and energy efficiency, materials use, land use and water use. 

In the finals, teams must demonstrate at a scale that is at least 10 times greater than the semifinals requirements at one of two purpose-built industrial test sites. 

“We’re excited to support these teams as they scale up and start demonstrating under real-world conditions at the industrial test centers. This is the final, most ambitious stage of this prize competition,” added Extavour. 

The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is a part of XPRIZE’s growing portfolio of energy and resources prizes and a long-term vision for accelerating revolutionary energy technologies to help move the world toward a clean, abundant energy future.

Some important questions posed by PlasticsToday included: 

  • Where do the teams in this competition get this excess CO2?
  • How much energy is used to produce the plastic materials from CO2?
  • Overall, is producing plastic materials from CO2 a net benefit or something that just looks interesting?

Here is what Extavour told us.

“Does it take energy to capture this CO2 and produce products? Yes it does,” explained Extavour. “CO2 is a low-energy molecule as a result of combustion, so most of the energy has been used up. Generally, we have to inject energy into the system to convert it into a high-energy polymer. So another thing we look at when judging the teams’ success is how clever or energy-efficient is your process? The devil’s in the details. 

“For long-term industrialization we will have to rely on carbon energy. In the Carbon X Prize we encourage the teams to use grid-scale electricity. Given the fact that we know we have to use low-carbon electricity—solar, wind, hydro and geo-thermal at low deployment—low-carbon doesn’t presuppose what the mix is.”

While there is talk about taking CO2 out of the atmosphere (atmospheric capture), there are a couple of sources of CO2 that can allow for reclamation at the source, which is more efficient. “We can get it from anywhere,” said Extavour. “We know the concentration in the atmosphere but you pay an energy cost for that CO2 because it’s so low. It is more efficient to get it at the point of creation, such as a power plant or industrial facility where concentrations are much higher—as much as 100 times higher—but pay less for that. We’re focused on point source emissions, capturing CO2 at the point of release before it reaches the atmosphere." 

Extavour noted that this endeavor is not an “air capture” competition. “Plants are great at capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, but plants are only 1% efficient in capturing CO2, which is not enough. But it is an important part of the solution,” he pointed out.

Comments (0)

Please log in or to post comments.
  • Oldest First
  • Newest First
Loading Comments...