Op-ed | How Elon Musk’s CO2 XPRIZE can fight climate change and advance space exploration

Wish to win Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE for carbon removing? Suppose small and suppose Mars.

Elon Musk and XPRIZE not too long ago introduced a $100 million prize purse for economically scalable concepts to seize and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2). As of Earth Day 2021, registration for XPRIZE Carbon Elimination now open. The hope is to encourage a world trade that may “collectively obtain” gigaton-scale removing of CO2 from Earth’s environment. We urgently want these options, as most Intergovernmental Panel on Local weather Change eventualities require CO2 removing to restrict international warming to 1.5 levels Celsius.

As badly as we’d like this Earth-saving trade, it’s additionally attention-grabbing to contemplate its advantages for one more trade: house exploration. Particularly, for contestants searching for an edge, I predict Musk will purchase an XPRIZE resolution that:

  • Converts captured CO2 into helpful merchandise.
  • Matches inside an 8-meter-diameter compartment.
  • An built-in principle of Elon Musk

    Elon Musk desires to go to Mars. That is frequent data. However “going to Mars” is greater than rockets. All of his initiatives are a part of the Mars plan. Earth is barely his R&D lab. His SolarCity (photo voltaic panels) and the Gigafactory (batteries) have apparent utility on Mars. Tesla (self-driving electrical automobiles) gives transportation in a spot with no gasoline — and probably no people, ought to Musk need to ship drones to put out the pink carpet forward of a crewed mission. Starlink (satellites) allows communication not solely with Earth, however between factors on Mars. Even the Boring Firm (tunneling machines) has its place: Photo voltaic radiation makes the Martian floor nigh unlivable, so interconnected subterranean residing quarters could also be essential. As for the not-flamethrower? We don’t know what Perseverance will discover. You’ll be able to’t be too secure.

    How does carbon seize match this principle?

    This XPRIZE is meant to “struggle local weather change and restore the Earth’s carbon steadiness.” It has no real interest in Mars, however quite in Earth-based options comparable to Carbon Engineering, Undertaking Vesta, or Working Tide. So why is Elon Musk funding the prize? Why his sudden curiosity in scrubbing Earth’s environment? 

    Sources on Mars shall be exhausting to return by, but it surely has at the very least one in abundance: The Martian environment is 95% CO2. (For reference, Earth’s environment is 0.04% CO2, and the flue gases emitted from smokestacks have 25% CO2 or much less.) We frequently consider CO2 as waste or air pollution, however what if we used it as industrial feedstock? Look no additional than one other XPRIZE, which focuses on turning CO2 into merchandise. With a bit of engineering and chemistry, you possibly can convert CO2 to gas, meals, constructing supplies, or different chemical compounds. Musk hasn’t overlooked Mars. Removed from it. He’s mendacity awake questioning easy methods to provide a Martian outpost.

    In fact, you could get to Mars earlier than you possibly can mine its environment. All the pieces Musk sends to the Crimson Planet should match into the SpaceX Starship. The Starship has a payload compartment 8 meters in diameter and as much as 22 meters excessive, with a most weight of 100 tons. You’ll be able to ship your know-how in items on a number of rockets — “economically scalable” might be interpreted as modular, and modular options might be damaged into a number of journeys — however your largest element can’t exceed these specs.

    Musk’s tunnel-boring machine, named Prufrock, is a living proof. Critics from coast to coast have urged him to drill wider tunnels, to permit for municipal trains. However Prufrock, developed in-house, is barely 3.7 meters in diameter (with, I estimate, a 25-ton slicing face). With these dimensions, Musk can match a number of elements right into a single rocket. Like Prufrock, a Martian carbon seize resolution ought to match within the Starship.

    You don’t must win to win

    This XPRIZE problem will final 4 years, ending halfway by means of essentially the most environmentally consequential decade of our lifetimes. I can’t wait to see the artistic options it conjures up within the carbon seize subject. Successful groups might want to seize and retailer one ton of CO2 per day, whereas convincing judges they will economically scale to a billion tons over time. That’s an aspirational aim, and options will doubtless take many types.

    A few of these options could also be transportable or modular, and can produce a product to offset working prices. I hope and count on that this XPRIZE will advance each CO2 seize and house exploration. You could be sure Musk shall be watching carefully for concepts that assist his extraplanetary ambitions. Not everybody can win the XPRIZE money, however give Musk one thing he can take to Mars and he may simply deliver you alongside for the trip.

    Alexander Urquhart is dedicated to a decarbonized future. He lives in Maine, the place he works on photo voltaic challenge growth. Beforehand, he labored on CO2 sequestration and radioactive waste storage points at Sandia Nationwide Labs.

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