A few weeks ago, billionaire tech guru Elon Musk tweeted that he would be donating a $100 million prize for the “best carbon capture technology.” Musk hasn’t released details on the award yet. Still, it’s safe to say that his star power is likely to bring new attention to carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technology.
We’ve written many times about the importance of investing in CCUS technologies. Sadly, policymakers often don’t emphasize this technology in carbon reduction strategies. Why? For one thing, the U.S. Treasury delayed issuing the regulatory framework for the 45Q tax credits for new carbon capture projects, creating uncertainty. Also, states such as California have enacted discriminatory laws that prevent carbon capture projects from participating in cap and trade markets. However, carbon capture still might find itself brought to the forefront by a large investment from the richest man in the world.
Musk, who heads Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is an enthusiastic supporter of carbon capture technology. His overarching goal is to lower the price of carbon capture, making it a viable solution to the currently utilized batch of conventional fuel.
In 2017, Musk stated, “There isn’t some way to make an electric rocket. I wish there was. But in the long-term, you can use solar power to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, combine it with water, and produce fuel and oxygen for the rocket.”
This concept isn’t far fetched. Several startups are working on carbon capture projects. In January, we wrote about an Oxford University-based research project that had produced jet fuel from captured carbon. Additionally, Canada’s Carbon Engineering has made a small batch of synthetic fuel from captured carbon. These companies have successfully proven that making synthetic fuel is possible but have also illustrated it is currently too expensive to make good economic sense. The future of synthetic fuel is mostly dependent upon getting costs down.
Elon Musk’s $100 million prize is just a fraction of the total investment needed to help CCUS adoption on a large scale. Yet, his star power is likely to help CCUS attract billions in additional capital. Those investments could eventually help drive costs down. How? Gaining new investment would allow scientists to increase their innovation pace and optimize the process through trial and error.
Climate models show that some form of negative-emissions technology will be required to meet global emissions reduction targets. That means we need to act fast to move carbon capture to the mainstream of technology. Musk’s endorsement of CCUS certainly takes us down that path.