Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of XPRIZE, which funds innovations in space exploration technology. Is XPRIZE used to address climate change or other environmental problems?
— J.D. via e-mail
XPRIZE was launched in 1996 to spur innovation in the commercial aerospace sector. Back then, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered $10 million to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. That first contest—officially dubbed the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight—attracted 26 teams from seven countries. The winner didn’t emerge for another eight years, when Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne successfully completed the challenge. All told, the contest led to $100 million in aggregate R&D investment by the teams involved, spurring a new track in private commercial space development.
Given the success of this first contest, Diamandis then leveraged the concept and platform to fund innovation in a wide range of sectors, with the mission being to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. No longer focused on just aerospace, XPRIZE now fosters high-profile competitions to motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the world’s grand challenges.
Subsequent XPRIZE competitions since Ansari have distributed $140 million in prizes. Several of the competitions focus on specific niches within aerospace, but the majority tackle other issues. Multi-million-dollar prizes have gone to teams working on designing super-efficient vehicles, accelerating the use of sensing technology to tackle health care problems, and creating a mobile device that can diagnose patients better than or equal to human physicians.
Several others have focused on solutions to vexing environmental problems. A $7 million XPRIZE went to a team building better technologies to map the Earth’s seafloor. A $1.75 million prize went to a project harvesting fresh water from thin air to help alleviate fresh water shortages. A $2 million prize went to researchers developing better ways to study ocean acidification, which prevents some shellfish from forming their skeletons and shells. And a $1 million prize funded a technology for cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers and other sources.
Another recently launched competition, XPRIZE Rainforest, is offering $10 million for the best autonomous technology that can assess the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest and utilize rapid data integration to unlock the secrets to conservation of this vanishing treasure trove of life. And a $20 million prize is still waiting to be claimed by the team that develops the most impactful breakthrough technology to convert CO2 emissions into usable products.
This year will see the launch of the biggest XPRIZE competition to date, with $100 million on the line to those who can develop the most efficient way to help humanity achieve funder Elon Musk’s goal of removing 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year until 2050 to help mitigate climate change and restore the planet’s natural carbon balance. Registration for participating teams opened on Earth Day 2021 (April 2021), with the winner to be announced in 2025.
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