Carbon XPrize winners announced

GILLETTE – A pair of projects that promise to revolutionize the construction industry while helping solve the world's carbon dioxide emissions problem has won the top awards in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize.

CarbonBuilt, a team from UCLA led by Prof. Gaurav Sant that demonstrated its technology at the Integrated Test Center attached to the Dry Fork Station coal-fired power plant north of Gillette, won the coal track of the XPrize competition.

CarbonCure Technologies, which demonstrated its process of infusing waste CO2 into concrete at a gas-fired plant in Alberta, Canada, won the gas track.

Each team will receive $7.5 million of the overall $20 million prize pool of the Carbon XPrize. The other $5 million was awarded in $500,000 payments to each of the 10 finalist teams in the competition.

The winners were announced Monday morning by the XPrize Foundation.

Both teams demonstrated unique proprietary technologies that infuse waste CO2 into concrete, one of the most prolific man-made materials on the planet.

CarbonBuilt uses captured carbon dioxide emissions and infuses it into concrete building blocks as they're made. The result is a more cost-efficient cinder block that uses less cement and is actually stronger than before, said Sant.

CarbonCure already is on a fast-track to implement its process into mainstream construction. It takes waste CO2 and injects it into the concrete mix as it's being pumped onto a truck. This happens through an apparatus attached to a batch plant. The raw concrete then is poured as normal for foundations, driveways, sidewalks and other uses.

Both teams are excited to win and said the XPrize is just the beginning of their research and transition into the business world.

"Obviously, I think it's a phenomenal success for the university team," said Sant in a Zoom interview with the News Record. "As you can imagine, being part of an effort that can lead to success in the XPrize, it really demonstrates what we're doing at the university and how to make it work.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sant’s team was one of only a pair of the five gas-fired finalists able to make it to the ITC to show how their technologies can scale to use large amounts of CO2. Sant said his team was grateful to be in Gillette last summer and that the ITC is a world-class research facility.

"Having access to the flue gas (from Dry Fork Station) was a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the technology at scale," said Iman Mehdipour, a member of the research team on the ground in Gillette and now vice president of engineering for CarbonBuilt.

"We had a lot of challenges, including working weekends to get access to the trucks to make concrete," he said. It's also gratifying to show "the proof of concept and doing lots of extensive projects in the basement of UCLA paid off."

Mehdipour called infusing CO2 into building materials "practical and it's cost-effective," and said having both XPrize winners be concrete technologies shows the potential for the industry to account for large amounts of CO2 while making the most valuable products.

Winning means "all the hard work of the last five to 10 years paid off," he said. "But the technology is actually working out; that was the most important piece of this prize."

The same is true for CarbonCure, said company CEO and founder Rob Niven.

CarbonCure's technology can be used at existing concrete batch plants and is easy to install. It's already being used at hundreds of plants around the world and is expected to explode, especially after becoming an XPrize winner, Niven said.

"When this journey started back in 2015, we just had a small handful of pilot plants ... (and were) making all the mistakes you'd expect from an early stage technology company," he said.

That CarbonCure is in more than 300 plants on four continents seems impressive so far, but Niven said that only scratches the surface of potential for the technology.

"There are 125,000 plants worldwide, 6,000 in the United States," he said. "Our journey is still at its infancy. There are a lot of plants and a lot of new markets."

He said the $7.5 million that comes with winning the Carbon XPrize is nice, and most will be put back into research and continued development of CarbonCure as a process and company.

But first, the team will get to celebrate a little bit, even if it's at a distance because of the pandemic.

"The first gesture is we gave them all some extra cash to buy a really nice dinner with a nice bottle of champagne," Niven said.

Then it's back to work.