Elon Musk is donating a $100 million prize for carbon capture technology — here’s what that means

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses as he arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Awards ceremony, in Berlin, on December 1, 2020.

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images

Elon Musk tweeted Thursday he will be “donating $100 million towards a prize for best carbon capture technology.”

The Tesla and SpaceX boss didn’t provide any specifics beyond the tweet, but said “details next week.” Cash rewards for innovation prizes aren’t new. For example, the XPRIZE foundation is a non-profit which facilitates cash prizes to incentivize innovation.

So what’s carbon capture technology?

Carbon capture, utilization and storage or sequestration (CCUS), which is often shortened to “carbon capture,” is a process of capturing carbon emissions, to either store or reuse, in order to prevent the emissions from being released into the atmosphere.

Excess carbon dioxide gasses block heat from escaping the earth’s atmosphere and cause global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by 47% and is “the most important long-lived ‘forcing’ of climate change,” according to NASA.

The use of a contest to drive innovation in carbon capture technology is “certainly a very good idea,” said Ahmed F. Ghoniem, a professor at MIT who has a research interest in CO2 capture technologies. Innovation in carbon capture technology is needed for “reducing the cost and complexity of the technology and improving the overall efficiency,” he told CNBC by email.

Carbon capture is not new. There are currently 21 CCUS large-scale commercial projects around the globe, according to the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental energy organization. The first one was set up in 1972.

So far, carbon capture has been a disappointment.

“The story of CCUS has largely been one of unmet expectations: its potential to mitigate climate change has been recognized for decades, but deployment has been slow and so has had only a limited impact on global CO2 emissions,” the International Energy Agency says.

But, that could be changing. “There are clear signs that CCUS may be gaining traction,” the IEA says.

The U.S. federal government “supports research and development” of carbon capture both in looking for and assessing the viability of geologic places to store carbon and in developing technology to better understand what happens to carbon when it is stored for long periods of time, according to the Department of Energy.

Telsa did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Musk, who is currently worth $180 billion according to Forbes, has signed The Giving Pledge, a public commitment for billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, but as of yet has not made significant charitable contributions especially when compared with other billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Source: CNBC