25 Million Dollar Earth Challenge

“Does the brainpower of the folks who read DSN have what it takes to save the planet and win a cool 25 M at the same time?”, asks author and “Best of DSN” judge Clark Thompson. “I figure if anyone can get this [carbon sequestration challenge] to work it’s the kind of folks who read DSN. So, get the word out –and if you get the 25M, count me in for a small finders fee ;-}”

The game is afoot to win the new CO2 busting “Earth Challenge” from Virgin (and X-Prize) Founder Richard Branson and former VP Al Gore. Clark Thompson’s fertile mind already contrived a workable theory using fertilized algae, so he’ll be tough to beat. Personally, I am looking to genetic modification to secure the treasure.

See you at the award ceremony. We’ll all take a ride in my new Trilobus.

Gore Seeks Technological Solutions for a Few Inconvenient Truths

By Andrew C. Revkin

Former Vice President Al Gore joined airline tycoon Richard Branson today to announce a $25 million prize to the first person to come up with a way of scrubbing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the battle to beat global warming. Today, he joined Richard Branson, the British magnate, adventurer, and now eco-entrepreneur, in announcing the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million bounty Mr. Branson is offering for any scientist or team who can figure out a way to pull the most significant heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide, directly out of the air.


Mr. Gore said he would be one of five judges helping Mr. Branson choose a winner. An initial $5 million would be awarded to the most promising design. The full award would come once the design proved viable and worked for at least 10 years without harmful secondary environmental effects.

The documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which documents Al Gore’s global warming campaign, has been nominated for an Oscar.Most climate and energy experts studying the human influence on climate change have concluded that the growth in emissions is inevitable for many decades without big breakthroughs that either would cut costs of non-polluting energy sources like solar panels or allow carbon dioxide to be captured and buried. Public and private investment in basic energy research has been flat or declining for more than 20 years.

There are a handful of projects worldwide capturing small amounts of carbon dioxide from power plants and pumping it as a liquid underground, but those cannot capture the gas released from hundreds of millions of vehicles and other dispersed sources.Scientists have been working on small-scale tests of projects that scrub carbon dioxide directly from the air using chemical processes or by fertilizing the ocean with iron filings in places where a lack of iron prevents algae from growing. Algae can absorb carbon dioxide and then, in certain conditions, sink to the seabed, taking the carbon with them. There are other big prizes handed out each year for advances in environmental science, but none so far targeted specifically at limiting global warming.

The X Prize Foundation, which propelled a quest for entrepreneurs to fly into space, has announced plans for a prize for a super-efficient car, but details have not yet been ironed out. As for Mr. Gore’s new focus on the need for technological breakthroughs, “There’s no shift in thinking,” said a spokeswoman in an e-mail. “There’s just only so much you can put in a 90-minute film!”

Peter Etnoyer (397 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.


8 Replies to “25 Million Dollar Earth Challenge”

  1. Iron seeding of the ocean seems like a strange waste of resources. What’s the EROI? Negative, that’s what.

    At best, some of the algae will attract salps which will eat the algae and drop their poo pellets to the deep sea. But how likely is it to work? Depends if the salps show up and reproduce quickly enough. Otherwise, the net GHG balance of the project is likely to INCREASE atmospheric levels. So it’ll cost money and make the problem worse. I wouldn’t rent that tux yet, CT.

    The better idea, which is already being tried and already getting funding from the private sector is using algae in controlled bioreactors to consume CO2 at the source where its concentration is greatest and converting it to fuel to displace fossil fuels.

    IF this can be done economically and in a scalable fashion, then billions of tons of waste CO2 will be converted to usable fuel every year within a couple decades. Compare that to messing with ocean chemistry and biology and I think the winner should be apparent.

  2. Here’s the concept–quite possibly not workable as I have neither the material science nor marine botany to say its more than a pipe dream: Create an iron-seeded sheet of bio-plastic material (like a biodegradable mylar) with sufficient texture for algae to adhere to it, and when it had accumulated enough carbon, sink it–lots of problems with the basic theory, like the material doesn’t exist, might cause serious ecosystem harm by removing base level organisms from food chain, to say nothing of impact of waves on such a giant sheet, etc. etc. but…it might be workable…ideas welcome

  3. “The better idea, which is already being tried and already getting funding from the private sector is using algae in controlled bioreactors to consume CO2 at the source where its concentration is greatest and converting it to fuel to displace fossil fuels.”

    Err, but that’s for point source CO2, and is inferior (IHMO) to saline aquifer sequestration.

  4. “Err, but that’s for point source CO2, and is inferior (IHMO) to saline aquifer sequestration.”

    What an illogical comment. At the point source, CO2 levels are +/-13%. Ambient air levels of CO2 are 0.038%.

    In what way would it be inferior to cut the “pollutant” at the source, converting it into algae biomass thereby displacing fossil fuels, which can be done at a high rate (Greenfuel Technologies demonstrated 40%+ reduction of CO2 levels from flue gases) as compared to dumping iron into the open ocean? What’s the energy input for the project? Even if it works, you haven’t displaced any fossil energy sources and you’ve created no new energy.

    But I’m sure it will employ out-of-work marine biologists, so if that’s the objective of the grant, it’s a sure winner. Point source bioremediation wouldn’t employ any out-of-work marine biologists, so I can see how it would be unattractive.

  5. Oh, and to tie this together and win the prize, the first step is to prove the concept that algae can be used to bioremediate CO2 into biomass usable as feedstock for different types of fuel and plastics. The second step is to ramp up production so that each point source of CO2 over a certain size is converting its CO2 to biomass. The third step is to use geological formations to provide temporary storage of CO2 so that it is only passed through algae bioreactors during peak productive times (daylight hours) to achieve the theoretical maximum rate of conversion of gas to biomass. At this point, you should be producing enough liquid fuels to replace the equivalent of all petroleum usage today, plus a little to replace some of the coal.

    After that, you replace more of the coal with terrestrial biomass feedstock such as MSW and farmed forests. That will put you much closer to a current carbon cycle economy, especially if you supplement with other renewables such as wind, primarily and solar (though not PV without significant improvements). The farmed forests will provide your carbon sink if you choose fast-growing varieties that employ deep root systems. The roots will be the sunk carbon.

    Then if you need additional atmospheric carbon removal, you can experiment with some silly ocean seeding ideas. But by then all the out-of-work marine biologists will be working in forestry, so the rationale for the program may no longer exist.

  6. It’s actually the oceanographers doing most of the iron seeding. There’s plently of work around for oceanographers, though, so maybe they’re not doing it so much anymore.

    Freshwater eddies pouring off British Colombia in an El Nino year also do alot of iron seeding in the Northeast Pacific. These eddies are about the size of Lake Michigan and persist for years, transporting larvae and nutrients far offshore. I’ve always had a hard time with pro-active iron seeding due to the large volume of terrigenous inputs. How could we match that?

    More on the freshwater eddies here:
    http://www-sci.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/osap/projects/HaidaEddy/default_e.htm

  7. A Potpourri of ideas for all people not just scientists.

    Forest Fires – trees are being smothered by pollution and cannot release as much oxygen into the air, they are drying out and bursting into flame… forest fires and fire damage has increased more than incrementally, which would be nature’s way.
    Dead Zones – oceans are being smothered by pollution, the ocean algae that oxygenates our air is being replaced by bacteria and these dead zones emit no oxygen.
    Storms – Earth’s air conditioners are becoming increasingly strong and violent. We can help the Earth in this way:

    Add oxygen to the air and seas, rivers and streams and forests, as well as in our communities, homes and work places.

    While we try to curb atmospheric and oceanic pollutants with oxygen, we need to continue in other global rebuilding activities.

    Solar is our best bet. As more volcanoes add sulfur to the air to help scrub the atmosphere with biofriendly chemicals (not necessarily friendly to Earthlings but to the Earth), they will block the amount of sunlight the atmosphere circulates, and more energy producing solar will be lost to space as the volcanic chemical clouds block necessary sunlight, which in turn reduces the amount of solar energy our food plants require for maximum nutrition, and cooling the planet even more than pollution. We need to build the kind of solar technologies (photon technologies) that trap light and solar energy. This is what I call dark solar. Reflective solar collectors need to be darkened. We need to stop reflecting solar light back into the atmosphere. We need to trap the light. We use the light now as an energy source with reflective light. When we convert to dark/black solar, we will have more energy to use. Now, we use about 5% of solar energy in nature. Perhaps, 1% more with various solar technologies, such as solar panels. When we use dark/black solar, we will have available to us up to 50% more energy for heating, cooling, transportation, communications, plant and food production and animal husbandry.

    Drought: People need to drop wells, purify that water and send it to the utilities, or just send it and let the utilities purify it. Through a pipeline or some other way. Also, the wells will prove beneficial for farmers, ranchers and other domesticated food animal land areas.

    I will not say, but, I suggested to a company that could to put oxygen into the air. They did. Men were on the roof spraying oxygen into the air and the atmosphere was awesomely bright and clean for a time. Of course, they are not doing that now, to my chagrin, however, if we could supply people (responsible people) with canisters of oxygen to release into the air periodically, we will see a tremendous difference in air quality. However, this is futile if we continue on the same path of polluting and not caring. We all need to participate and we can get more people involved when we deliver oxygen canisters to them for the periodic release of oxygen into the atmosphere, and others can work in environmentally friendly industries, such as the many levels of recycling we need to promote.

    Some groups may be able to release them on their hikes in the forests and others in their trips on the oceans.

    A side benefit of increased oxygen in the atmosphere is the reduction of air borne viruses and of insects in offices and homes.

    Another aspect of pollution is the increase of insects. This has been noted over the past 20 years as an unusual occurrence. In the last 30 years, more and more gas has been used for heating, cooling and cooking. Insects thrive in Earth chemical environments. Many that are invading are following gas lines into homes and buildings. Reducing the use of gas at this time may not be economically feasible, but include in the plan to phase out gas entering into buildings. Gas usage needs to be limited to outdoor use and needs to be modified towards environmental friendliness. This will also reduce the need for pesticides and will raise child mortality to the baby-boomer average (late 40’s to mid 50’s, thereabouts). Pesticides in homes and offices are known to infect pregnant women and their children are born with respiratory disorders. Environmental pollution and sick buildings contribute to respiratory disorders in newborns, infants and increasingly, adults. We’ve been blaming cigarettes too long. Get real, people are suffering from lung cancer who never smoked and were not raised in smoking homes.

    Recycling: very few communities to date have recycling programs. Again, getting us involved on some level to help. Us common folks are at a loss as to what to do besides not throwing trash in the street and in some states, like Texas, it is against the law to litter Texas roads. We need to fund these communities to set up food and nonfood waste receptacles in the community, easily accessible to everyone. Where I live now there is only ONE recycling station and it is a chore for a single individual to participate in, so I have heard. There is no computer recycling in this community. These computers are not usable, at all, but parts may be and the rest needs to be discarded, and are, through our local trash managers. I would like to send my computer back to the manufacturer for recycling and disposal if there are no other options available.

    Landfills have lots recyclable materials. Our trash needs to be separated on site at the landfill (in some potentially amenable way) and the products, wood, paper, metal, be set up in piles, stacks, etc., and old cars, TVs, radios, etc., for recycling. There is a lot we can do and this positive energy will surely lead us into more positive, thoughtful life conditions and to more generated non -polluting, waste making products (bio friendly, easily recyclable/degradable and such).

    Other environmentally friendly ideas: solar windmill, solar energy generator, water silo/well, computerized with manual override for operations. These can be used on orchards and farms with a water reclamation system included. It keeps the orchard/farm warm in winter and cool in summer, climate controlled.

    Studies show that the ocean cleans itself. Recent polluting calamities (last 30 years of disaster spills and watershed). It is reasonable to assume that oxygenating water (oceans and watershed) will help the oceans, rivers and streams to clean themselves. Additonally, individuals can be hired to keep oceans, beaches, lakes and lakesides clean that watershed does not get so polluted.

    Corporations need to remediate their own waters. Die cast plants, saw mills, chicken farms, etc., all need to remediate their waters before discharging them into the ground. These need to be enforced through some local, state or government agency.

    Develop portable water remediators for waste water from washing cars. Sprinkle it in the water where that runs off cars in driveways and at car washes.

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