Skip to main content

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

By Carbon Resequestration No Comments

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

Olivine can reverse climate change and ocean acidificaiton

By Olivine No Comments

It is rare to come across a solution to lowering the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that is simple, yet plausible, and which can be started right away with no new science. Not only is this process possible, it is actually already underway as you read this and has been underway since the formation of Earth.

The process is called weathering and it is the natural chemical breakdown of rock that occurs when it is exposed to atmospheric gases. In this case, we are looking specifically at the rock olivine when it comes in contact with ocean water and the CO2 dissolved in it. What results is a chemical reaction that pulls carbon from the CO2 in the ocean and binds it in a solution that eventually settles into rock on the sea floor. Not only does the olivine remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but the resulting solution is alkaline and has a deacidifying effect on the ocean.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. The only real question is “why haven’t we started this sooner?” When you look at the facts, it becomes even more obvious that this solution is not only viable, but is one of the few tried and true methods we have to plausibly sequester carbon, as rock already sequesters 99.9% of world’s total carbon.

Carbon in the atmosphere makes up only .004% of the world’s total! As can be seen in the chart below, limestones contain 46.6% of the world’s carbon, dolomites contain 33.3% and sediments contain another 20% of the world’s carbon. Recoverable fossil fuels only make up a tiny sliver of carbon on earth, at just .005% of the world’s total.[1]Dunsmore, H.E. (1992) A geological perspective on global warming and the possibility of carbon dioxide removal as calcium carbonate mineral. Energy Conversion and Management/33, p.565-572

So when we look at the problem through this new lens, the solution becomes obvious. We need to take that extra carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into its majority state: rock. The plan is to expose large amounts of the abundant and cheap rock, olivine, to the atmosphere and ocean. We know this works because there were times, such as the rising of the Tibet plateau and the Himalayas that exposed so much rock to weathering that it kicked off global ice ages (including the glaciation period we are in now).[2]Raymo, M.E & Ruddiman, W.F., (1992) Tectonic forcing of late Cenozoic climate Nature, 359, Issue 6391, 117-121 and [3]Saltzman, M.R. and Young, S.A (2005) Long-lived glaciation in the late Ordovician. Isotopic and sequence-stratigraphic evidence from western Laurentia. Geology, 33, 109-112.

The idea of accelerated weathering of olivine has been championed by the Dutch geologist R.D. Schuiling for over a decade. He has worked with a diverse group of scientists to run experiments and calculate the rate of weathering and volume of olivine needed to make a net impact on decreasing atmospheric CO2 levels. Everything has been calculated to minimize the CO2 output in acquiring the olivine and minimizing the CO2 output in distributing it. An impressive part of their process was to come up with the idea of utilizing the free energy of wave power on the world’s 2% most tidally active beaches to mill the rocks down and accelerate their weathering. In the picture below, olivine rocks (left) were tumbled for three days in an experiment to simulate the accelerated weathering they would experience on a beach, and the rocks came out significantly rounded and polished (right).

To offset all of humanity’s current CO2 for a year, we would need to release 7 km^3 of grains across the beaches of the world. It is not an impossible task, because countries could work together to offset their region’s CO2 emissions. For example, there is an area near the English channel, by the coasts of the UK, France, and Netherlands, called the Southern Bight, that has 35,000 km of adequate beaches that are accessible by road. If those countries worked together to spread a one-centimeter thick layer of a volume of 0.35 km^3 of olivine grains on those beaches, it would offset 5% of a year’s global CO2 emissions. This 5% of emissions exceeds the combined annual CO2 emissions of the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland, which together are responsible for about 4% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Our plan is to start with a single beach and go from there.

To our knowledge, there is not yet a man-made olivine beach, however, there are examples of natural olivine beaches created from volcanic action, such as such as Papakōlea beach in Hawaii pictured below (and at the top of the page). We are in the initial stages of creating a beach to put the science to the test and to hopefully inspire and catalyze the world to action. We do not have to be passive in reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and we do not have to convince every polluter and country in the world to stop putting CO2 out, frankly, we can’t afford to wait. We must take action to remove that CO2 now, and this project is a step in that direction.

Based on our evaluation of geoengineering technologies and concepts, we have come to the conclusion that creating an olivine beach and proving that this concept works is the most impactful thing Climitigaton can do, and so will focus exclusively on this project. We are in the early planning phases right now, building a team and working on logistics. We are looking to connect with interested parties to who want to work to help make this a reality. If you would like to join the project, please reach out to us 🙂

We are currently scouting a beach in the tropics because hot, humid weather increases the rate of weathering. Ideally there would also be a nearby supply of olivine to minimizing transportation costs (and emissions). Ideal sources of olivine are those with their emissions already sunk, such as mining operation waste or abandoned mines. We are also looking for scientists and organizations with experience monitoring beaches and ocean ecosystems. Due to the pressing issue of coral bleaching from ocean acidification, we might target a beach near an affected reef so we can put the deacidifying effects to the test locally.

These are some of the things we are thinking about and would love to have input from anyone who is an expert in these areas, has leads for us, or can help point us in the right direction. We hope for this to be a community project that helps turn the tide in the fight to stave off CO2 induced climate change.

If you want to learn more in-depth about the science behind this concept, please check out these papers or send us a note:

Rolling stones - fast weather of olivine
Olivine against climate change and ocean acidification





1 Dunsmore, H.E. (1992) A geological perspective on global warming and the possibility of carbon dioxide removal as calcium carbonate mineral. Energy Conversion and Management/33, p.565-572
2 Raymo, M.E & Ruddiman, W.F., (1992) Tectonic forcing of late Cenozoic climate Nature, 359, Issue 6391, 117-121
3 Saltzman, M.R. and Young, S.A (2005) Long-lived glaciation in the late Ordovician. Isotopic and sequence-stratigraphic evidence from western Laurentia. Geology, 33, 109-112.

Nuclear Diamonds

By Nuclear, Recycle No Comments

Nuclear diamond batteries are a concept that was presented at the University of Bristol’s “Ideas to change the world” lecture series in 2016. The concept is to take the problem of existing nuclear waste and convert it into a long-term supply of clean energy. In nuclear reactors, graphite blocks are used to moderate the reaction. The UK alone has nearly 95,000 tons of radioactive graphite blocks in special long-term storage facilities. The top layer of the blocks contains a radioactive form of carbon, Carbon-14.

Diamonds are also made of carbon, so what they propose is to scrape off the top layer of Carbon-14, then compress it and turn it into a diamond. When properly arranged in a radioactive field, they are able to generate an electric circuit from the diamond, which is essentially a battery. They then encase these diamonds in the strongest material known to man, which also happens to be a diamond, which also blocks the radiation from escaping. You now have a battery with a 5000+ year half-life. The beauty of this idea is that the radioactive carbon is already out there and so this would be repurposing something that currently poses a long-term problem for society, into something positive. Nuclear diamonds are a great example of the out-of-the-box type thinking we are trying to encourage and foster at Climitigation. Tom Scott, Professor in Materials at Bristol University, summed them up as the following:

“There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation. By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Grain that tastes like wheat, but grows like grass

By Replacement No Comments

Did you know that most grains like corn only last one season and have to be planted, tilled, etc each and every year? They are called annuals and so each year the replanting process causes tons of waste, topsoil erosion, fertilizer runoff, pollution and CO2 release. It would be much better if there was a cultivated grass, which when consumed by humans is then defined as a “grain,” that could be planted once, and yield multiple seasons of crops (perennial).

Turns out, scientists have developed such a grass called Kernza. They call it “the wheat of the future” because it has much better properties than the current main grains that feed humanity: rice, wheat, and corn. We as individuals need to be open to adjusting our palate to like new flavors, simply because they make more sense. It is said to taste like “nuts, crackers, coffee, and grass” so it can’t be that bad. As consumers, we need to start stimulating demand for these types of products and be open to integrating them into our meals. We may have to make some minor sacrifices, but it will be worth it in the end because this type of plant would yield food for 5 seasons versus one season. This is a 5x improvement in all of the metrics associated with planting and tilling and would significantly improve our environment and ecosystems, especially by preserving our topsoil resources.

Read more about this awesome grass and let the idea of better species grow on you:

The word “grain” has many definitions, but it commonly refers to any plant that humans eat and that’s also part of the botanical family of grasses. Three grains provide about half of the world’s calories: corn, wheat, and rice (the only one of the three that is occasionally cultivated as a perennial in the tropics). In the United States, about 46 million acres of land are covered with wheat and 91 million with corn, a combined area bigger than New Mexico. Mostly, these grains are planted in monoculture—one variety to a huge field—and cultivated with the help of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as the kind of precision and efficiency you’d expect on a factory floor. This method of farming has made it possible to cheaply produce food calories for hundreds of millions of people; raise vast populations of cattle, pigs, and chickens; and develop enormous markets for other grain-based products, including ethanol. (About 40 percent of American-grown corn in 2016 was turned into ethanol; 37 percent was used to fatten livestock or ended up damaged or miscounted; and a minuscule fraction entered the human diet, mostly as corn syrup.)

Growing grain this way requires huge amounts of fossil fuel to power farm machinery and to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (accounting for as much as 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions). And every time you till and replant, you loosen and tear up the topsoil. As a result, millions of tons of soil erode into the nation’s waterways every year, carrying pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers with them, contributing to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and polluting waterways all over the Midwest.

Read more at The Nation

Climitigation: Why we must act to reverse climate change through mitigation

By Uncategorized No Comments

Climitigation is a science-based, politically neutral think tank dedicated to mitigating climate change. There are many organizations, governments and people working on stopping or slowing the release of CO2 in the atmosphere, but we do not think there is enough of a focus on the alternatives ways to combat climate change. We want to put a focus on the mitigating or reversing of climate change by highlighting the technologies, ideas, companies, and people that are less discussed or on the vanguard, but that could make a significant impact on the problem. There are technologies and ideas, some in progress and some not yet in existence, that will radically shift the current equation on climate change back to neutral or in even in our favor and the goal here at Climitigation is to facilitate, foment and put a spotlight on those technologies and ideas that we think will be most impactful, so they can reach their full potential

Examples of some techniques, ideas, and companies we will highlight, include:

  • Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – which is basically using nature’s natural process of carbon capture in plants, but then instead of allowing the plants to decompose, turning them into a charcoal and burying it underground.
  • Accelerating the weathering process of limestone and other rocks, which then causes a natural capturing of CO2 and also mitigates ocean acidification. This paper details a technique on how spreading a reasonable amount of the mineral olivine on the worlds 2% most energetic beaches might counteract a year’s global CO2 emissions.
  • Direct Air Capture is a technique that does exactly what it sounds like, captures air and then removes the CO2 from it. In June 2017 the world’s first commercial plant capturing carbon was opened in Zurich. It was created by Climeworks, whose stated goal is to “capture 1 percent of the world’s global CO2 emissions.
  • Nuclear Diamonds

Stay tuned and sign up for updates as our future reports will include greatly expanded technologies, discussion, and calculations. We can’t wait to get into more exotic techniques, like nuclear diamond batteries or advanced nuclear fusion generating techniques like polywells.