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Project by the Numbers: NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE

Tim Hansen, Founder and CEO, sat down today for a Project by the Numbers debrief to talk about some of the impressive numbers behind the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition and 350Solutions role as the official verifiers for the competition. Click here to read more about the project.

Q. What is verification as it relates to carbontech or cleantech?

Hansen: Verification is the work of figuring out if a technology or process is doing what it is designed to do. Most developers have an idea of what their technology is doing – but having an outside party come in and check your work as a fresh set of eyes, can help discover missteps in your calculations or assumptions, or provide assurance that the technology is working as designed. Verification should be seen as positive, because it can highlight opportunities for continued improvement.

Unfortunately, at this time, verification is not a standard part of technology development, but hopefully that will change.

Q. Are all verifications the same?

Hansen: All verifications are not the same. And that can be both a good and a bad thing. For certain technologies, its performance drivers – what matters about how it works – may differ depending on the application, location (and its regulations or policies), and driver for its use. For XPRIZE, there were certain parameters focused on in the competition, but those may not be as important in other scenarios. So, having the flexibility to focus on what different users might need in terms of data about a technology’s performance is great, with results targeting different or specific use cases or operating conditions. On the other hand, having a core set of performance metrics for a technology that is universal and agreed upon is great. It allows everyone to do some fundamental apples-to-apples comparisons. So, developing consensus core metrics or verification protocols is important in the long run.

Q. What verification was involved in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE?

Hansen: Our company was extensively involved in designing the verification plans, meaning processes and metrics, for the competition. We worked with each finalist to account for all the resources that were used in (i.e. feedstocks, materials, energy, and other inputs) and created (products, byproducts, wastes, etc.)  by their technologies. We observed and reviewed all of the data that was submitted by the teams as well as installed our own equipment to measure how much CO2, energy, and water each team was using. Finally, 350Solutions collected samples of the final products and had them analyzed to ensure that they were viable, market-competitive products. The goal of these verifications plans was to provide the judges clear and consistent data that would allow them to make informed decisions and ultimately pick the winners.

Q. We know that 18.1 tonne of CO2 was converted into product by the 9 teams during the finals, equal to the amount of CO2 produced by 2.4 U.S. homes in one year.  How do we know that to be true?

Hansen: We measured it. Teams measured it. We cross checked, we verified. We had flow meters and CO2 analyzers on each input stream to each team’s process, measuring CO2 input second-by-second. And on the product side, we validated team submitted data for measurements of their product output – by observing their measurements in person and remotely. And, we also did independent analysis of their products to see how much carbon was actually in the product. Essentially, that allowed us to do a mass balance on carbon for each team and figure out where the carbon went.

From the CO2 usage perspective, it’s good to note that, at the Calgary ACCTC site, the site-operated CO2 capture system – which collected the CO2 from the power plant flue gas and provided a stream of pure CO2 to the teams – actually processed much more CO2 than the teams were able to use. They produced over 400 tons of CO2 from mid September to early December and ran near continuously. Over 46 tons of that CO2 was fed to the teams during that period.  

Also – to some that 18.1 tonnes may seem small when we are talking about gigaton impacts needed. But, considering that some teams were only able to operate for about a day or two during the demo, some were still at very small scales, and some weren’t fully optimized yet (these are still new technologies!), that number is pretty good. Even more important, though, is that number represents massive scaleup in two years from the kg level that most teams were producing in the semi-finals. Scaling these techs is critical, and the XPRIZE competition pushed them hard and showed that it can be done rapidly and is the first step toward scaling to gigaton scale CO2 utilization.

Q. We talk about the number of data points reviewed, 27,828,703 – what type of information is behind those data points and why is that important?

Hansen: They key thing to understand with the amount of data is that it is an indication of the level of detail that was looked at for each team. We aren’t simply talking about one final set of numbers – like that a team used 1.7 tons of CO2 over 35 days. We look at second-by-second or minute-by-minute data on these processes. And, each process might have a few to dozens of different measurements that all go into calculation of how much CO2 is used, for example. Looking at this level of detailed data ensures that you are able to catch times during operation when there might be an upset (like a pipe froze and the process wasn’t working right), or when an instrument goes haywire and reports wrong numbers. Having that level of data lets us make sure that we are reporting true values for performance, not just what a computer spits out at the end.

Q. Are there any other interesting numbers that you can share related to the competition?

Hansen: Our team at 350Solutions has been working with XPRIZE for more than four years. In the semifinals, we traveled more than 95,000 miles to 28 different locations in six countries to monitor the technologies. During the last year of the competition, we still traveled to be onsite in both Wyoming and Canada to perform some in-person monitoring for days at a time, including 35 man-days of full or modified quarantine during COVID, and probably close to a dozen COVID tests.

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