What better way to spend a hard lockdown in Victoria, Australia, and Sunway, Malaysia, than by submitting a proposal for Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE in carbon removal. The team of researchers from Monash University (pictured above) has been awarded $250,000 from the Musk Foundation to continue their work in carbon removal. They are the only Australian and Malaysian team to have won a prize. Almost 200 university-affiliated teams submitted proposals.
“The entire process of our proposal from ideation to submission was completed all while in hard lockdown! Most of the team had never even met in person,” the Monash Carbon Capture and Conversion (MC³) team told me. “This has made me incredibly proud of our student engineers, having achieved such a feat despite the harsh conditions we faced. A fun fact behind the scenes was that we needed lots of caffeine to keep ourselves awake in order to attend the XPRIZE live webinars that run at 10 am PST, making it 3 am AEDT over here in Victoria, Australia. But so worth it in the end!”
“We’re hoping to get people excited about this award and the amazing work we’d be able to achieve with such support,” Evangeline Leong, fourth-year student in chemical engineering and biomedical science at Monash University and Chief Technical Officer on the project, told me. “It’s been such an honour to be able to lead the team, alongside Kavindya Liyanage and Pranav Dayal, our biotechnology team managers, in submitting this world-class proposal. Now it’s on to the next phase where we make our proposal a reality by setting up physical demonstrations.”
She went on to explain the project (I did ask her to keep to the KISS explanation). “Our award-winning biotechnology carbon dioxide removal solution proposed the use of bio-sequestration, which consists of biologically-assisted carbon capture and conversion methods that focused on the capture of CO2 from the ocean and air. We will achieve this via artificial forestry and microalgae cultures in novel-designed floating photo bioreactors. The biomass produced from these carbon farms will then be utilised downstream in their transformation into cross-laminated timber, for sustainable buildings, and biochar, a charcoal that can be used for soil amendment. Carbon utilisation processes will be powered by BECCS (bioenergy by carbon capture and storage), further adding to carbon negativity of our solution. This proposal of ours was successful in obtaining the $250,000 USD XPRIZE Student Award.
“Other areas our team is working on involve carbon capture via direct air capture (DAC), carbon utilisation via electrochemical polymer synthesis, and carbon blockchain verification technology.
“Our DAC unit captures a high volume of CO2 through an economic and energy efficient process which is then geologically sequestered while a fraction of CO2 is used for polymer synthesis. The polymer synthesis process will store the CO2 captured by DAC for at least 100 years by converting it to high-density polyethylene with a long lifespan and recyclability.
“The process of applying for such a large grant was a new experience for many in the team, as we are mostly comprised of undergraduate students. And despite XPRIZE classifying a student team as a team with at least 50% of current enrolled students, we take pride that our team has a 100% student representation.
“Keeping to the strict word count limit was definitely one of the most challenging parts of this proposal submission. We were eager to share anything and everything we had ready to make our case. The XPRIZE made themselves very accessible through various platforms, giving us the opportunity to get our queries answered. This has been such a great experience for us all.”
For those wanting to do deeper research:
- Bio sequestration
- Artificial forestry
- Cross laminated timber
- Polymer synthesis
- High-density polyethylene
All photos courtesy of Monash University