Virgin Earth Challenge

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The Virgin Earth Challenge logo.

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a competition offering a $25 million prize for whoever can demonstrate a commercially viable design which results in the permanent removal of greenhouse gases out of the Earth's atmosphere to contribute materially in global warming avoidance.[1] The prize was conceived and financed by Richard Branson, and was announced in London on 9 February 2007 by Branson and former US Vice President Al Gore.[2]

Among more than 2600 applications, 11 finalists were announced on 2 November 2011. These are Biochar Solutions, from the US; Biorecro, Sweden; Black Carbon, Denmark; Carbon Engineering, Canada; Climeworks, Switzerland; COAWAY, US; Full Circle Biochar, US; Global Thermostat, US; Kilimanjaro Energy, US; Smartstones – Olivine Foundation, Netherlands, and The Savory Institute, US.[3]

The challenge[edit]

The Prize will be awarded to "a commercially viable design which, achieves or appears capable of achieving the net removal of significant volumes of anthropogenic, atmospheric GHGs each year for at least 10 years", with significant volumes specified as "should be scalable to a significant size in order to meet the informal removal target of 1 billion tonnes of carbon-equivalent per year".[4] One tonne of carbon-equivalent (C) equals 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO
). (Because of the relationship between their atomic weights, more precisely 44/12.) At present, fossil fuel emissions are around 6.3 gigatons of carbon.[5]

The prize will initially only be open for five years, with ideas assessed by a panel of judges including Richard Branson, Al Gore and Crispin Tickell (British diplomat), as well as scientists James E. Hansen, James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. If the prize remains unclaimed at the end of five years the panel may elect to extend the period.

Around two hundred billion metric tons of carbon dioxide have accumulated in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, raising concentrations by more than 100 parts per million (ppm), from 280 to more than 380 ppm. The Virgin Earth Challenge is intended to inspire inventors to find ways of bringing that back down again to avoid the dangerous levels of global warming and sea level rise predicted by organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Virgin Earth Challenge is similar in concept to other high technology competitions, such as the Orteig Prize for flying across the Atlantic, and the Ansari X Prize for spaceflight.

Competing technologies[edit]

The eleven finalists represent five competing technologies, some being represented by multiple finalists.


Biochar, created by pyrolysis of biomass. Pyrolysis is a process where biomass is partially combusted in an oxygen-limited environment, which produces a char rich in carbon. This char can be distributed in soils as a soil amendment.[6]

Finalists competing with biochar designs:

  • Biochar Solutions, US
  • Black Carbon, Denmark
  • Circle Biochar, US

BECCS (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)[edit]

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), combines combustion or processing of biomass with geologic carbon capture and storage. BECCS is applied to industries such as electrical power, combined heat and power, pulp and paper, ethanol production, and biogas production.

There is 550 000 tonnes CO
/year in total BECCS capacity operating, divided between three different facilities (as of January 2012).[7][8][9][10][11]

BECCS was pointed out in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a key technology for reaching low carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration targets.[12] The negative emissions that can be produced by BECCS has been estimated by the Royal Society to be equivalent to a 50 to 150 ppm decrease in global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations[13] and according to the International Energy Agency, the BLUE map climate change mitigation scenario calls for more than 2 gigatonnes of negative CO2 emissions per year with BECCS in 2050.[14] According to the OECD, "Achieving lower concentration targets (450 ppm) depends significantly on the use of BECCS".[15]

The sustainable technical potential for net negative emissions with BECCS has been estimated to 10 Gt of CO
equivalent annually, with an economic potential of up to 3.5 Gt of CO
equivalent annually at a cost of less than 50 €/tonne, and up to 3.9 Gt of CO
equivalent annually at a cost of less than 100 €/tonne.[16]

Imperial College London, the UK Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Walker Institute for Climate System Research, and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change issued a joint report on carbon dioxide removal technologies as part of the AVOID: Avoiding dangerous climate change research program, stating that "Overall, of the technologies studied in this report, BECCS has the greatest maturity and there are no major practical barriers to its introduction into today’s energy system. The presence of a primary product will support early deployment."[17]

Finalist competing with BECCS design:

Direct air capture[edit]

Direct Air Capture is the process of capturing carbon dioxide directly from ambient air using solvents, filters or other methods. Subsequent to being captured, the carbon dioxide would be stored with carbon capture and storage technologies to keep it permanently out of the atmosphere.,[13][18]

Finalists competing with direct air capture designs:

  • Carbon Engineering, Canada
  • Climeworks, Switzerland
  • Coaway, US
  • Global Thermostat, US
  • Kilimanjaro Energy, US

Enhanced weathering[edit]

Enhanced weathering refers to a chemical approach to in-situ carbonation of silicates, where carbon dioxide is combined through natural weathering processes with mined minerals, such as olivine.[19]

Finalist competing with enhanced weathering design:

  • Smartstones – Olivine Foundation, The Netherlands

Grassland restoration[edit]

Changed management methods for grasslands can significantly increase the uptake of carbon dioxide into the soil, creating a carbon sink. This and other land use change methods is not generally considered among negative emission technologies because of uncertain long-term sequestration permanence.[13]

Finalist competing with grassland restoration design:

  • The Savory Institute, US

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Virgin Earth Challenge". Retrieved 2011-11-05.
  2. ^ "Branson launches $25m climate bid". BBC News Online. 2007-02-09. Retrieved 2008-04-30.
  3. ^ "Virgin Earth Challenge announces leading organisations". Archived from the original on 3 November 2011. Retrieved 4 November 2011.
  4. ^ "Virgin Earth Challenge, Terms and Conditions clauses 1.2 and 3.1c". Archived from the original on 17 January 2012. Retrieved 17 January 2012.
  5. ^ "US Department of Energy on greenhouse gases". Retrieved 2007-10-04.
  6. ^ "What is biochar?". Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  7. ^ "Global Status of BECCS Projects 2010". Biorecro AB, Global CCS Institute. 2010. Retrieved 2012-01-20.
  8. ^ "Global Technology Roadmap for CCS in Industry Biomass-based industrial CO2 sources: biofuels production with CCS" (PDF). ECN. 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-20.
  9. ^ "First U.S. large demonstration-scale injection of CO2 from a biofuel production facility begins". Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  10. ^ "Ethanol plant to sequester CO2 emissions". Archived from the original on 10 March 2011. Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  11. ^ "Production Begins at Biggest Ethanol Plant in Kansas". Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  12. ^ Fischer, B.S., N. Nakicenovic, K. Alfsen, J. Corfee Morlot, F. de la Chesnaye, J.-Ch. Hourcade, K. Jiang, M. Kainuma, E. La Rovere, A. Matysek, A. Rana, K. Riahi, R. Richels, S. Rose, D. van Vuuren, R. Warren, (2007)“Issues related to mitigation in the long term context”, In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  13. ^ a b c "Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty". The Royal Society. 2009. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
  14. ^ "IEA Technology Roadmap Carbon Capture and Storage 2009" (PDF). OECD/IEA. 2009. Retrieved 2010-10-22.
  15. ^ "OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, Climate Change Chapter, pre-release version" (PDF). OECD. 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  16. ^ "Potential for biomass and carbon dioxide capture and storage" (PDF). IEA-GHG. 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-20.
  17. ^ "The Potential for the Deployment of Negative Emissions Technologies in the UK" (PDF). Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College. 2010. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  18. ^ House; et al. (September 14, 2011). "Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved 20 January 2012.
  19. ^ R. D. Schuiling and P. Krijgsman: (2006), "Enhanced Weathering: An Effective and Cheap Tool to Sequester Co2", Climatic Change, Volume 74, Numbers 1-3, 349-354.

External links[edit]