Calling for a Green Chemistry Revolution

Honored Contributor
1 0 1,688

A call to action for innovation in CO2 conversion and ocean discovery

Contributed by Paul Bunje & Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE

The Paris climate agreement is a North Star pointing scientists and engineers towards the technological breakthroughs needed to usher in a more sustainable era. The opportunity to develop green chemistry solutions and apply them to real problems at scale has never been greater.

We at XPRIZE are seeking to help spur these new technologies by launching incentive prize competitions that invite innovators from around the world to tackle some of humanity’s greatest challenges. We recently launched two new prizes that seek to address two of the most pressing: climate change and understanding the world’s oceans. Critically, we are seeking bright innovators from chemistry, materials science, chemical engineering, and beyond to come and showcase radical new solutions that can help solve these Grand Challenges.

In September 2015, XPRIZE launched the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The Carbon XPRIZE is a US$20 million global competition to incentivize breakthroughs in the conversion of CO2 into useful and valuable products.

The concept of CO2 conversion is not new. CO2 has been used to produce methanol and urea since World War II. Current production of these two chemicals alone from CO2 conversion consumes 120 Mt of CO2 annually [Aresta 2013]. Estimates for the total amount of CO2 which could be converted using today’s technologies and products has been conservatively estimated at 300 Mt, with accompanying avoided emissions of roughly 1 Gt/yr [Aresta 2013]. This represents around 5% of total global CO2 emissions, which are 36 Gt/yr and rising [IEA 2014].

CO2 conversion alone may not solve the CO2 problem, but it is a promising, underutilized tool poised for growth and an important bridge to a low-carbon economy. New breakthroughs in CO2 conversion chemistries could increase this potential dramatically. The chance to demonstrate one breakthrough could show that myriad other technologies built on green chemistry are also poised for increased investment and deployment.

Why are we confident about an impending suite of technological breakthroughs? Well, the conventional wisdom has been that CO2 conversion is too expensive and energy intensive to thrive in markets dominated by fossil hydrocarbon feedstocks. But an emerging set of technologies and policies alongside a new business climate may shift the energetics and cost curves to the point where CO2 conversion could be poised for a radical leap forward.


This is happening in several specific ways:

  • New CO2 capture and conversion chemistries are increasing overall process efficiencies through new catalysts, materials, and process designs. [Lim 2015, Scott 2015]
  • Deployment of low-carbon electricity generation is accelerating, especially renewables. CO2 conversion processes powered by low-carbon electricity could achieve net CO2 emissions reductions. [Ren21 2015, Aresta 2013]
  • Growing government and business investment in de-carbonization and the prospect of carbon pricing is creating new market opportunities for low-carbon technologies, including CO2 conversion. [Armstrong 2015, IEA 2014]

In the Carbon XPRIZE, the winning team will convert the most CO2 into products with the highest net value. Rewarding high value products will encourage teams, investors, policy makers, and the public to reimagine the business opportunity of CO2 conversion. A sustainable business based on CO2 conversion could leverage business innovation to tackle the CO2 problem and spur broader investment in green chemistry.

Just this December, XPRIZE launched another prize with big ambitions. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a $7 million competition challenging teams from around the world to build advanced deep-sea underwater robots that will provide safe access to the tough environment 4 km below the surface at the ocean floor, paving the way for autonomous, fast, and high-resolution ocean exploration. The success of this prize will result in technologies with which we can fully explore and map the ocean floor, uncovering our planet’s greatest wonder and allowing us to sustain and protect our deep-sea resources. We are also asking teams to advance our ability to see what is down there by producing high-resolution images of biological, geological, and archeological features.

Embedded in this competition is a $1 million bonus prize from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for technologies that can detect underwater chemical or biological signals and trace them to their source. Here again is an amazing opportunity to unlock the science and technology of green chemistry in the deep ocean. Much of the challenge of deep-sea exploration hinges on the difficulty of navigating and communicating in a dark and extreme environment. Novel materials will be critical to both vehicle function at great depth and—perhaps more impressively—enabling breakthroughs in sensing and autonomous “sniffing” of the source of particular chemical signatures.

Significant advances have been made in underwater vehicle technology and autonomous navigation. However, the speed and duration of these vehicles is severely limited due to constraints on power consumption and the materials used. Application of advanced materials from adjacent fields opens new possibilities for improving the performance and sensing capabilities of deep-sea exploration. Deploying materials that enable environmentally safe exploration is critical because ocean ecosystems are so sensitive and vital. And as a criterion for this prize, green chemistry has a huge role to play in driving breakthroughs in underwater exploration and discovery.

Perhaps the most exciting part of both the Carbon XPRIZE and Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is the unknown science, technology, innovation that could be unleashed. What new CO2 conversion chemistries might emerge? What new species might be uncovered in the depths of the unexplored oceans? What new horizons for green chemistry applications will emerge?

Dr. Paul Bunje is Principal and Senior Scientist at XPRIZE Foundation, where he leads Energy & Environment prizes. Bunje is a global thought leader in bringing innovation to solve environmental grand challenges. This work includes leading the US $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE and XPRIZE’s Ocean Initiative.

Dr. Marcius Extavour is Director of Technical Operations for the US $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE with XPRIZE Foundation’s Energy & Environment group.


M. Aresta, A. Dibenedetto, and A. Angelini.  The changing paradigm in CO2 utilization. J. CO2 Utilization 3–4, 65 (2013).

IEA Energy Technology Perspectives. (2014). Harnessing Electricity’s Potential. Paris: IEA Publications. ISBN 978-92-64-20800-1, OECD/IEA.

X. Lim, How to Make the Most of Carbon Dioxide, Nature 526, 628 (2015).

A. Scott, Learning to Love CO2, Chemical & Engineering News 93-45, 10 (2015).

Ren21’s Renewables Global Status Report (2015)

K. Armstrong and P. Styring, Assessing the potential for utilization and storage strategies for post-combustion CO2 emissions reduction, Frontiers in Energy Research 3, 1 (2015).

“The Nexus Blog” is a sister publication of “The Nexus” newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, please email, or if you have an ACS ID, login to your email preferences and select “The Nexus” to subscribe.

To read other posts, go to Green Chemistry: The Nexus Blog home.