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Carbon XPRIZE, An Early Catalyst Of CCUS In Wyoming, Comes To A Close

Gabe Falzone, former VP of Technology for CO2 Concrete, now CarbonBuilt standing at their test facility at the Dry Fork Station
Cooper McKim

Two winners have been announced for the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE: one that used flue gas from natural gas combustion in Canada, the other, from a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming.

The competition aimed to scale up young demonstrations of carbon capture utilization technology: tech that uses carbon dioxide to create products.

Prior to 2014, state leaders were seeking to kick off the Integrated Test Center and needed at least one tenant on board to advance the project. Meanwhile, the competition needed a site.

Carbon XPRIZE has now come to a close with a virtual announcement a year later than expected.

The Winner

CarbonBuilt, a team out of the University of California Los Angeles, used flue gas directly from the Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant in Gillette, to make a greener form of concrete. It took home $7.5 million, splitting the prize purse with Carbon Cure. The team arrived at the Integrated Test Center in June of 2020 and ran its demonstration for four months. According to a press release, CarbonBuilt was able to reduce the amount of ordinary cement needed by between 60-90 percent.

The International Energy Agency estimates that cement production accounts for 7 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Gaurav Sant, the team lead for CarbonBuilt, says concrete is a resource that's hard for society to move away from. Creating a greener alternative with a similar cost and performance to typical concrete is a way to address that.

"This is really a business in which we cannot afford to impoverish the world to address carbon emissions. And I think CarbonBuilt did a really good job of creating a scalable solution that's cost-effective and ready today," he said in a WIRED announcement of the competition winners.

Marcius Extavour, executive director of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, said CarbonBuilt simply had the best demonstration with the lowest energy consumption and biggest market potential. He added not having to purify its CO2 was a huge advantage for them.

Origin Story

Former Gov. Matt Mead developed a partnership with XPRIZE when it was still deciding on a host site for the competition. Hosting the XPRIZE was part of Mead's pitch to the legislature in 2014 for the more than $20 million Integrated Test Center, $15 million of which came from state coffers. The ITC is located next to the coal-fired Dry Fork Plant and is meant to provide space to research carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), a long-standing commitment of Wyoming state leaders.

The XPRIZE competition was Mead's entry point to developing carbon capture utilization as a strategy in Wyo

"Well, it was the first opportunity I saw to make some headway," he said in a December 2020 interview. "When this opportunity with XPRIZE came up, I saw it as a much likelier opportunity to solve the CO2 issue because you're not just storing something. If successful, you're actually utilizing it and turning into a viable commercial product, whatever that may be."

The idea was to bring promising companies to Wyoming to increase the value of carbon dioxide and offset the environmental and financial costs of coal-fired power plants.

"My hope was that it would provide stability in that industry for so many that have worked in there and provided so much for the rest of Wyoming, but also diversify into sort of a little science tech area," said Mead.

On The Ground

The original schedule slated the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE to finish up in Q2 of 2020. A June 2019 delay pushed the competition back four months. The pandemic caused further delays and travel restrictions that kept three of the five teams from arriving or demonstrating in Wyoming at all.

Those finalists had to find an alternate site to test their technology. One of them, from Scotland, had to withdraw several months ago, according to XPRIZE. Extavour said, based on where their technology was plus COVID hitting made setting up a field demonstration too dfficult.

Marcius Extavour at the ITC gathering in February 2019
Credit Cooper McKim / Wyoming Public Radio
Wyoming Public Radio
Marcius Extavour at the ITC gathering in February 2019

The remaining four teams had enough data to be judged.

Extavour said only having two finalists in Wyoming was not the vision he had in mind with the Carbon XPRIZE, but that it's better than nothing.

"To be honest, it wasn't clear if the other teams would even have any opportunity to demonstrate, given the pandemic... if we hadn't made that change," said Extavour in an August 2020 interview.

Two teams were able to spend time setting up and running demonstrations on the ground in Wyoming though: CO2Concrete, now CarbonBuilt, out of California, and Dimensional Energy out of New York.

Wyoming Impact

Seven years since the legislature allocated $15 million to construct the Integrated Test Center with the XPRIZE in mind, a pipeline of projects is slated to set up technology at the ITC.

"Our relationship with XPRIZE is great," said Jason Begger, managing director at the ITC. "We also knew that the relationship with XPRIZE was temporary, and we needed to continue to build that technology pipeline without them."

In a 2020 interview, former Gov. Matt Mead said the state doesn't have control over where competitors end up settling, but is still thrilled to have had the Carbon XPRIZE. He hopes one of these teams will help make carbon capture utilization a viable industry to offset the costs of coal-fired power plants.

In a summer 2020 interview, Gov. Mark Gordon said it's disappointing that more teams couldn't come on-site at the ITC.

"But I think the work that's going to be done there is essential and absolutely important to our global success, and ultimately brings on new technology and new technology that has really specific value to Wyoming's emerging and diversifying economy," he said.

In a recent statement, Gordon congratulated CarbonBuilt and said he's hopeful this is the first of many opportunities to provide technical solutions to carbon capture challenges in Wyoming.

Listen to Carbon Valley, an audio series produced by Wyoming Public Media, to follow the full story of one finalist in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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