Aussie students excel at the XPRIZE

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

The Musk Foundation’s XPRIZE has just announced the winners of the Carbon Removal Student Competition, and three Australian universities have made the cut.

The XPRIZE challenges teams from across the world to come up with solutions to the major problems facing our planet. The US$100 Million Carbon Removal prize tackles greenhouse gas emissions, asking teams to pitch concepts for the next generation of carbon capture technology – able to actively remove carbon dioxide (CO2) that we have already pumped into the atmosphere.

The student competition is a part of this larger prize, with a winnings pool of US$5 million to help teams develop their concepts for resubmission to the overall competition.

Student-led teams from Monash University, the University of Tasmania and the University of Sydney have now been announced as three of the 23 winners of the prize. Each team will receive US$250,000 for development to become competitive applicants to the greater XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition.

The Monash Carbon Capture and Conversion (MC³) student team was led by Emily Qiao, a fourth-year engineering and commerce student. She explains that their proposal “consisted of biologically assisted carbon capture and conversion methods which focused on the capture of CO2 from the ocean and air via artificial forestry and microalgae cultures in novel designed floating photobioreactors”.

Carbon collected will then be used to produce cross-laminated timber for sustainable buildings, as well as biochar, a kind of charcoal that can improve and maintain soil fertility.

The team from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies won for their project Blue Symbiosis, led by honours student Joshua Castle. It aims to turn decommissioned oil and gas infrastructure into aquaculture sites that can produce seaweed.

“This will help us to scale up seaweed production large enough to restore the oceans’ health and to supply material for vastly increasing the creation of bioplastics,” their website explains.

Like terrestrial plants, seaweed uses photosynthesis to absorb CO2 and grow, with coastal ecosystems able to take in carbon dozens of times quicker than forests on land. Seaweed already naturally sequesters hundreds of millions of tons of carbon every year around the world, and projects like Blue Symbiosis will help boost that number.

The University of Sydney team snagged a prize with their Sydney Sustainable Carbon project. In partnership with the start-up Southern Green Gas, the team aims to capture carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere to either compress and store it, or use it – for example, in regulating fruit, vegetable and flower growing, or in the production of algae for biofuels.

Their technology is based on a promising material called a metal-organic framework, which is a highly porous solid that behaves like a sponge, capable of soaking up specific types of gas molecules.

But this is just the beginning for these teams.

Launched in April this year, the XPRIZE Carbon Removal is a four-year competition. To win the final grand prize, teams must build a working model that can remove at least 1000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, then demonstrate a pathway towards scaling up the tech to remove 10 gigatonnes per year by 2050.

“Today’s college and graduate students have proclaimed that solving the climate crisis is one of the most important objectives of their generation,” says Peter H Diamandis, Founder and Executive Chairman of XPRIZE.

“It’s for this reason that this student competition is so critical. Our mission is to engage, inspire and guide the next generation of climate entrepreneurs.”

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