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Notes from the Carbon Removal XPRIZE Launch Interview With Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis

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The Carbon Removal X Prize was launched with a livestreamed interview between Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis. This post is based on my extemporaneous/shorthand notes while watching it, which I then went back over and filled in with links to specific points in the video where the topics are discussed. I ultimately ended up adding in some direct quotes, time markers, and some commentary where I thought relevant. The rules have now been released (though still in draft form), but this discussion still remains very relevant as to the thinking behind the crafting of the rules. We will do an analysis of the final rules once are released later in the summer.

This is a really fun interview, as Peter Diamandis and Elon are good friends, so even if you are not interested in CDR, I highly suggest you watch the “tangents” I link below. Elon shares some interesting tidbits throughout, and sometimes they struggle to stay on topic (but I’m sure you will love when they go off topic. And definitely don’t miss Elon’s answer to the last question, where Elon goes pretty deep on the meaning of life and why we are here.

I am mostly going to use this post to transcribe what they said about the contest and will do an analysis later. So this is Part I and I will follow up with a Part II where I will will go over the written rules and share my thoughts (very positive so far on the prize and rules), and also share some thoughts on possible techniques for the competition (and maybe give away some free ideas for untapped CDR methods).

elon musk explaining the carbon removal xprize to peter diamandis

 

Watch the full Interview between Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis on the Carbon Removal XPRIZE:

Notes from Interview with Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis on the Carbon Removal XPRIZE:

  • On framing their discussion:
    • What things are going to move the needle?
    • How much can these technologies move the needle.
    • If removing 10s, or 100s of billions, in what form will that carbon be
    • What is it going to cost humanity? What will be most affordable and scalable?
  • Diamandis goes direct on rules:
    • To win:
      • Build something that works
      • Demonstrate something that can extract 1000 tonnes per year (kilotonne of carbon)
    • Musk we are open to adjusting, if not working, fundamental goal is to have spent money have spent well and usefully)
      • Wants what comes out of it to matter to the future
  • The total prize is currently $100 million, (Musk said he would not be surprised if the prize ended up costing $120 million or more)
  • If you think should be different, feel free to tell them.
  • Musk: Goal is for it to be a useful exercise
    • Not be an academic exercise that never amount to anything
    • Everything works on powerpoints…
  •  To win:
    • At minimum show 1000/tonnes of carbon removal per year (calculated, so can maybe can run for 1 month, i.e. like 100 tonnes per month)
    • Not looking for theory, looking for real:
      •  Part of doing it is about calculating cost, not looking for theory, looking for practice
      • Musk: Hard to make something real
      • “Prototypes are trivial, production is hard.”
    •  Calculate fully considered cost of pulling out the CO2
      • Musk: “what is the lowest net cost”
        • If can generate revenue, that counts too
        • Rocks that are useful, sand, useful for construction
        • Has to be net negative of 1000/tonnes
        • Cure can’t be worse than the disease
    • How long sequester debate:
      • rate of sequestering has to far exceed the rate at which it is potentially re-entering the atmosphere.
      • Sequester for at least 100 years
      • Demonstrate that methodology will contain the CO2 for 100 years
        • doesn’t’ need to be 100% for 100 years, but like 90% for 100 years
        • “just needs to be something that if we scaled it up would it work”
        • pass common sense test
    • Winning team has to prove to the judges that it can scale to the giggatonne level:
      • Musk: “Can’t be inherently niche”
      • Scaling is hard, “something generally useful for the world”
      • Pragmatic solutions
      • Doesn’t need to be perfect
      • Fundamentally, if we scaled it up, would it work
  • Prizes
  • 4 Categories
    • Direct Air Capture – pull it out of the air
      • Musk:
        • Lots of ways to get carbon out of the air
    • Oceans, algae, kelp plankton
      • a lot of co2 in the oceans, people don’t realise
    • Land
      • trees (Beninoff, trillions trees),
        • Musk: Where are they going to be planted?
    • Rocks (they actually missed saying this one up because of Elon’s interesting tangent discussion with Diamandis on population dynamics brought up in discussion of Land+Tree), etc, and they ran out of time.
    • In early stages around 15 teams (plus money for student teams) will get $1m after a year
  • Contest will last 4 years (want to make sure rules work the entire time).
    • (In my previous participation on a team in the SpaceX Hyperloop competition, the rules were updated frequently between rounds as more was learned, etc)

Video Interlude (WARNING: volume is loud):

    •  100 Second Video on Carbon Removal
  • Marcus Extavour, Vice President of Energy and Climate, looks to be in charge at XPRIZE from what I’ve seen:
  • Got to reduce missions and get to net zero, not enough, must go carbon negative
  • CO2 in air and oceans, removing it, and storing for a long long time.
  • Do you know how to remove CO2 using the land, oceans, rocks, or CO2 directly out of air.
  • Plants and trees can do this, and have been doing it for a long time, do you know how to help plants and trees sequester that CO2 in the vegetation and soils, in a way that is durable and can last for centuries
  • how do we use the oceans to sequester vast amount of CO2
    • kelp and seagrasses are great at this
    • 1/3 of emissions already in oceans
    • do you know how to remove it and sequester it safely?
  • Rocks, what bout rocks?
    • many rocks naturally do this, but process takes 1000s of years on its own
    • many rocks can do this naturally, but many rocks can do this on their own
    • do you know how to dramatically speed that up?
  • You might already have an amazing idea in:
    • DAC, soil seq, tree planting, farming, kelp farming, seagrass, OAE, geological seq, mineralization, EW, or technique no one has heard of before.
  • 100M answer looks like any other crazy idea, it just has to work 😉

Question and Answer:

  • Should competing teams prioritize scalability over costs?
    • Musk: “Unless the cost is affordable, its not scaleable”
      • 1-2% of GDP is possible / $200/tonne prob upper limit
      • Its not scalable unless the cost is low, if not, the cost at scale is low
      • Need to solve the problem, so cost and scale need to be addressed
      • Can we afford it as a civilization
      • Not creating some new environmental issue
      • Cure must be much better than the disease (3rd or 4th time used this saying)
        • take some medication, slight side effects, but generally want med to be much better than the disease
      • Can see a path to this working at scale (has to have some chance of that)
  • Who do you think should be paying?
    • Market system works well when price is accurate. Price right now of CO2 in the atmosphere, is not accurately being priced.
    • “Market system will work well if not pricing error.” We have a pricing error that we are not paying for as an “unpriced externality.”
    • “not paying for our garbage removal”
    • vast majority of economists would agree, to put a tax on carbon, then find ways with tax rebates (makes sure not regressive)
    • “If you correctly price something, the market system works. Prices are just information. We have the wrong information…”
  • Do you expect the tech coming out of this competition being helpful on Mars?
    • Writers note: love this question, as this was my original thinking on why Musk would want to CDR competition (for DAC) for rocket fuel.
    • His answer goes into the vast reserves of water on Mars (I did not know that, 40% of planet could have ocean, and up to a mile deep).
    • You can use the Sabatier reaction process to turn H20+cO2 over catalyst, you get methane (CH4) and O2 (oxygen), which is why they designed rocket  the Starship to use methane+oxygen, b/c can create on mars sustainably….
  • Why don’t you implement existing technologies (tree planting) more widely?
    • I think there should be more trees
    • Diamandis: currently does not exist tech that can scale to the gigatonne level at a reasonable cost and that is the reason for this competition
    • More on Musk and trees:
      • where trees can generally grow, they do grow.
      • “I’m pro-tree” (writers note: I also say this often… think Elon should have mentioned his Treelon Musk donation))
  • When recruiting how to recruit that first team?
    • Note: his question is off the topic of my summary, but you should click to go to that time because Musk gives really great autobiographical background on how he kind of got to where he is etc.
    • 3 major things for motivation
      • got to look forward to going to work in the morning
      • enjoying the work intrinsically, right work environment. rewards, financially compensation, natural rewards are good
      • best people in the world want to know if what they are doing is going to matter
  • XPrize just released $20m, what is diff with this contest?
    • co2 out of smokestack and coal plant and turning into product
    • more profitable than cost of extraction
    • Now working on global level
  • Can a 17 year old register?
    • no age limit, student teams important
  • Generally chatting with Musk towards end:
  • Who and what inspires you and drives you to be productive at a superhuman level?
    • Musk: I was crazy kid, I was just very curious about the world
      • how did we come to be here? What is the meaning of life, etc?
      • I had a really intense desire to understand things and learn
      • “Yeah I mean, I had a sort of an existential crisis, I guess, when I was 11 or 12 or something, just trying to figure out what it is all about…and ultimately came to the conclusion that, we don’t really know the answer, but, if we increase the scope and scale of civilization, then we have a much better chance of understanding the meaning of life and, ‘why are are we here?’, or even, ‘what are the right questions to ask?’ So, therefore, we should strive to expand the scope and scale of consciousness to better understand the questions to ask about the answer that is the universe.”

I had a sort of an existential crisis, I guess, when I was 11 or 12 or something, just trying to figure out what it is all about…and ultimately came to the conclusion that, we don’t really know the answer, but, if we increase the scope and scale of civilization, then we have a much better chance of understanding the meaning of life and, ‘why are are we here?’, or even, ‘what are the right questions to ask?’ So therefore, we should strive to expand the scope and scale of consciousness to better understand the questions to ask about the answer that is the universe.

-Elon Musk