Richard Branson’s $25M atmosphere challenge

Arches in brick wall

With Richard Branson offering US$25 million to someone who can come up with a system to remove greenhouse gases (most importantly, CO2) from the atmosphere, a lot of people are probably wondering whether it is a pipe dream. Aside from the obvious option of growing more plants, I would be inclined to think so. In order to separate CO2 from air, then sequester it somewhere, it seems likely that you would need a lot more capital and energy than would be required to simply switch away from fossil fuels. It’s like turning on your air conditioning because your oven is making the house too hot. I don’t doubt that it is possible, but I doubt that it is a sensible solution.

That said, finding a technical solution to the greenhouse gas problem would please a very great many people. Though less likely to actually mitigate climate change, the ‘separate and sequester’ plan seems a lot more sensible than the sulfate injection plan, discussed previously. While it may be unlikely that someone will actually claim his prize (and it might distract research attention from more promising options like making more efficient solar panels), that is not to say it would be a bad thing if someone did.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “Richard Branson’s $25M atmosphere challenge”

  1. The Branson challenge is pretty broad. As I see it, separating and burying Co2 is not the sole available option. If it were, there would be little reason for the contest.

  2. The Branson challenge is pretty broad. As I see it, separating and burying Co2 is not the sole available option. If it were, there would be little reason for the contest.

    The brief is to devise a system to remove a “significant amount” of greenhouse gases – equivalent to 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or more – every year from the atmosphere for at least a decade.

  3. The solution would require a rethinking of our tax structure. Carbon emissions per acre should be taxed. Rubisco per acre should be subsidized. All plants, especially those that utilize the more efficient C4 carbon fixing system, should be legalized. Does anyone know where I can send my entry?

  4. One interesting bit of trivia that Tom mentioned was that the X-Prize was funded with an insurance contract. The funders paid the premium and the insurance company agreed to pay if the prize conditions were met.

    To figure out how to price the contract the insurance company called “the experts” at Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. According to the experts the conditions for the X-Prize to be won (carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks) were so unrealistic as to be basically impossible within any reasonable time frame. Thus, the funders got lucky. The insurance company offered the contract at a very low premium and the rest is history!

  5. CLIMATE: Branson wants a bigger prize to reward emission-cutting ideas (02/11/2008)

    Nathanial Gronewold, special to E&ENews PM

    UNITED NATIONS — Billionaire philanthropist Richard Branson is asking the 20 richest governments in the world to match his corporation’s $25 million in prize money to push private development of commercial technologies that can reduce man-made, greenhouse-gas emissions continuously for 10 years.

    In talks at a private luncheon at U.N. Headquarters, Branson touted his “Virgin Earth Challenge” as an example of a private initiative. He asked governments to match his company’s contribution, potentially bringing the award to more than a half billion dollars.

    “We all need to play a role in rallying all the scientists, engineers and inventors worldwide with a common purpose in mind: to find a way to extract carbon out of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Branson told the gathering. “We at Virgin have put up a $25 million prize to encourage scientists and inventors to put their mind to it. Today we’d like to urge the 20 wealthiest governments to match us in this endeavor so we can make this the largest scientific prize ever.”

    Branson and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore announced the launch of “Virgin Earth Challenge” in London last September. Largely modeled after the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition designed to encourage private space flight, Branson’s Earth Challenge will be open for five years. Branson said that he, Gore and four other judges will meet annually to determine if any submission qualifies for the award.

    “All of us should be delighted to write our $25 million checks because the successful person could literally have saved most of mankind,” Branson said.

    Branson also called on world leaders to establish what he called an “environmental war room” to identify all the best ideas and to map who is doing what. The system would track and prioritize the effects of existing solutions on carbon reduction and conservation of ecological systems.

  6. 30 March 2008

    Air Capture

    Guest Commentary by Frank Zeman

    [This is one of an occasional series on the science of mitigation/adaptation/geo-engineering that we hope to continue. Since this isn’t our core expertise, we’d especially appreciate balanced contributions from other scientists.]

    One of the central challenges of controlling anthropogenic climate change is developing technologies that deal with emissions from small, dispersed sources such as automobiles and residential houses. Capturing these emissions is more difficult as they are too small to support infrastructure, such as pipelines, and may be mobile, as with cars. For these reasons, proposed solutions, such as switching to using hydrogen or electricity as a fuel, rely on the carbon-free generation of electricity or hydrogen. That implies that the fuel must be made either by renewable generation (wind, solar, geothermal etc.), nuclear or by facilities that capture the carbon dioxide and store it (CCS).

    There is however an alternative that gets some occasional attention: Air Capture (for instance, here or here). The idea would be to let people emit the carbon dioxide at the source but then capture it directly from the atmosphere at a separate facility…

    The main barrier is the efficiency of the energy requirements during the reducing process. Air capture requires energy to move the air, manufacture the absorbing solutions and solids as well as to produce the oxygen, fuel and make up chemicals. All of these items will result in additional CO2 emissions, which reduce the efficiency and therefore the benefits. The second important consideration, and maybe the dominant one, is cost. Air capture has to be more economical than the proposed alternatives (hydrogen, electricity, renewables, greater efficiency etc.). It should be stated clearly that air capture is not a viable alternative to capture at large, point source emitters such as power plants since it will always be more efficient to capture and store carbon dioxide from more concentrated streams. So while there are any non-CCS fossil fuel plants, Air Capture is a non-starter…

    However, the cost of air capture is still basically unknown. Estimates have varied wildly and real numbers will only come from pilot projects over the next few years. In some sense, that puts this technology on par with the hydrogen economy with expansion potentially starting sometime after 2015. For now there are far easier (efficiency) and cheaper (power plants) ways of reducing emissions of CO2 and so air capture is not a replacement for other efforts to reduce emissions. But in the long run, all carbon sources will require mitigation – including the transportation sector – and at that time air capture could be the most cost effective option for some sources. It is not any kind of panacea though.

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