The head of a global competition to produce new carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies has weighed in on the need for new approaches to carbon abatement. 

Dr Paul Bunje (pictured), head of energy and environment at the XPrize Foundation and leader of the NRG Cosia Carbon XPrize competition, told Power Engineering International that the idea for the prize came about in attempting to design a complementary approach to global efforts on CCS

According to Bunje, CCS has had two fundamental barriers to overcome, which is where adding a utilization effort comes in. There is “huge value in [CCS], obviously, in terms of climate change,” he said, “and capturing and storing carbon is also a sensible approach, but it suffers from two big problems.

“The capital costs are massive,” he explained, “when you have to develop strategies, technologies, locations to sequester, etc – so clearly a lot of global efforts have had to be funded by national governments, so that limits the amount of investment as not a lot of places have the capital or the interest in early-stage R&D.”

This meant that “there wasn’t a broad diversity of innovation” in the field, he said, and “almost nothing was happening in the carbon conversion space”. There was “some research… but there hadn’t been the incentive to do more.” CCUS, he said, incentivizes innovation and “puts the ‘U’ in CCS”. 

In addition, he said CCS “suffers from a lack of market pull: there is not a market demand to sequester carbon. It’s something you can regulate, or can incentivize by changing the price on carbon by creating markets – that’s the approach most places have taken – but we wanted to add to those efforts largely driven by governments to see if we couldn’t incentivize private markets outside regulatory infrastructures” because “markets are so efficient at scaling up technology”.

The Carbon XPrize competition offers a $7.5m prize to each winning demonstration project on two tracks, one to be demonstrated at utility scale with flue gas from a coal-fired power plant, and the other with a gas-fired plant. The 47 project teams from Canada, China, India, Finland, Switzerland, Scotland and the US include carbon capture technology companies, academic institutions, non-profits, startups and even a father-and-son team, Bunje said.   

“What blew me away the most,” he added, “was that we got teams that are using every possible process technology to convert CO2 that we could imagine, and teams producing every category of product we could imagine.” Among the carbon utilization projects are teams hoping to produce fuels, cement, polymers, chemicals and chemical precursors, and advanced materials such as nanotubes and graphene.