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Meet The Finalists For The Virgin Earth Challenge

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As it had been projected, the average temperature of the planet Earth has been rising for over a century, with the clock starting traditionally at the dawn of the coal-fired Industrial Revolution when more accurate and precise thermometer temperature readings began.

The irony not lost on many, carbon dioxide, a waste gas produced with the burning of organic material (and coal is organic), is one of the primary culprits blamed for anthropogenically caused rising global temperature levels, and some more proactive persons in the so-called Green Movement wish to, not only end the majority of anthropic carbon emissions, but use technology to actively sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide. Virgin Earth Challenge has issued its ironically eponymous (certainly it’s not a namesake?) challenge to the technological and corporate world for ways and methods to attempt to produce an artificial system capable of producing a net loss of atmospheric carbon dioxide in an ecologically sustainable, economically viable manner for a period of time no shorter than 10 years.

Virgin Earth Challenge, created in 2007 by James E. Hansen, Tim Flannery, James Lovelock, Crispin Tickell, Albert Gore, and Richard Branson, offers a 25 million USD prize for “an environmentally sustainable and economically viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere…in a material way to contribute to the stability of the Earth’s climate.” While the rules and terms state that there is no obligation for Virgin Earth Challenge to select a winner, there have been, for the moment, 11 finalists selected.

In wonderfully alphabetical order and shamelessly quoted directly from the Virgin Earth Challenge website (my own words tend to be redundant), here they are presented:


Biochar Solutions

Biochar Solutions make industrial equipment (notably its B-1000 Thermal Conversion System) that convert forest residues into biochar and bioenergy.

The company’s key strength is in its growing network of independently owned biochar businesses, which are not only its customers but also partners in logistics, research, marketing, and shared experience, helping to collectively gain the efficiency required to move the industry forward.



Biorecro’s “carbon clean-up” service delivers negative emissions by tying energy produced from burning biomass (as opposed to fossil fuels) to a carbon capture and storage process.

Biomass extracts CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. Biorecro collect the CO2 released when the biomass is burnt for energy and then store it permanently, thousands of meters below ground. The process is verified and certified by an independent third party and the company’s first partnered facility is now in operation.

Video courtesy of WWF Sweden:


Black Carbon

Black Carbon’s BC300 technology creates both biochar and energy from waste biomass.

Wood chips are turned into charcoal via pyrolysis. Gases produced as a bi-product of this process are combusted separately to create heat and electricity. The ratio of charcoal generation to energy production means that the unit can deliver carbon-negative energy production.

Video courtesy of Black Carbon:


Carbon Engineering

Carbon Engineering (CE) integrates proprietary designs with existing industrial technologies to capture CO2 directly from the air.

CE are targeting rapid scalability and cost efficiency. The process involves a chemical solution (that naturally absorbs CO2) being brought into contact with the air. This solution, now containing the captured CO2, is sent to through a regeneration cycle which simultaneously extracts the CO2 as a high-pressure pipeline-quality product (ready to be put to numerous commercial uses) and primes it for re-use.

Video courtesy of Carbon Engineering:



Climeworks CO2 air-capture technology has been developed at ETH Zurich, Switzerland and is based on a cyclic adsorption-desorption process.

Atmospheric CO2 is chemically bound to a sorbent. Once saturated the CO2 is reclaimed from the material by heating it to between 60-100°C, delivering high-purity (>99.3%, the rest being air) gaseous CO2. Climeworks suggest that over 90% of the system’s energy demand can be supplied by cheap low-grade heat.

In addition to the long term negative-emissions potential of the technology, Climeworks have identified range of key markets and applications, including the food and beverage industry, greenhouse fertilization, and renewable fuel production.



COAWAY use a unique process for removing CO2 from the air and propose using existing power plant cooling towers that already move large quantities of air to create the necessary throughput for the carbon capture process.


By surrounding the inlet of cooling towers with their CO2 absorption apparatus, large amounts of air can be processed quickly, driving down costs. Coaway captures the CO2 in a chemical reaction with an aqueous solution. The resulting material is ‘regenerated’ in a thermal process that also releases the captured CO2 as a concentrated stream ready for commercial use or sequestration.


Full Circle Biochar

full circle biochar

Full Circle offers proprietary biochar products that are scalable and profitable in major agricultural markets around the globe – notably its BioCore TM and BioCharge TM offerings which are standardised and stabilised biochar products.


Kilimanjaro Energy

Kilimanjaro’s core technology was discovered by Dr. Klaus Lackner and Allen Wright with the generous financial support of the late Gary Comer and the Comer Science & Education Foundation.

The company is developing a range of technologies based on ‘sorbents’ that capture CO2 but give it back when sprayed with water, making them re-usable at low cost.


Global Thermostat

Global Thermostat’s powers its CO2 air capture technology with low-cost left over process heat emanating from power plants, cement smelters, refineries and other industrial operations.

When process heat is used, the current paradigm (more-energy-equals-more-emissions) can potentially reverse. With Global Thermostat, more energy produced could mean more carbon reduced. A pilot plant is already in operation at SRI International in Menlo Park, California.


Savory Institute

The Savory Institute is the home of Holistic Management, a decision making framework which results in ecologically regenerative, economically viable and socially sound management of the world’s grasslands.

The institute teaches people how to manage herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds and in the process sequester thousands of tons of carbon into the soil (which can also increases its fertility and water storage).

Related: Allan Savory’s Greatest Mistake Resulted In The Death Of 40,000 Elephants, Now He May Just Reverse Climate Change And Save The World

In 2003 The Savory Institute’s founder, Allan Savory, won the Banksia award given to the person doing the most for the environment on a global scale, and in 2010 the Institute’s sister organization, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for the organization working to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Often seen as a cause of climate change the Savoury Institute shows the world how to rethink its relationship with cattle – and feed more people in the process.

Video courtesy of Savory Institute:

Smart Stones

Based on the research of Prof. Dr. R.D. Schuiling from the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University, Smart Stones promote a process for mining, milling and spreading Olivine, which naturally bonds with Carbon dioxide.

smart stones

The company is addressing the challenge of up-scaling this natural, geological process – because if enough Olivine can be mined, ground-up and distributed it can potentially lock away gigatons of atmospheric CO2.

And there you have it. I am cynical when it comes to expecting capitalism as a system to “fix” anthropogenically caused problems, but sometimes we don’t get what we want. I’m also somewhat skeptical of the description of the judges:

“When an entry has advanced enough to fully pass through the VEC’s technical review process and meet the tough criteria it contains, it will be put to the six Judges for a final verdict. They are all world-leaders in their fields. And their decision is final.”

And their decision is final. What an interesting thing to say, something quite arrogant and verbatim not often heard in the scientific community, but very much heard within the realm of business and economics… and in law; law, historically, one of the most unscientific practices ever. It’s an ominous line to read, even if it were written without any malice or ill intent, but yet, perhaps, it shall foreshadow something—or perhaps not. In any case, 25 million dollars is still a bit of money these days, and, in the end, it’s only about the money, Lebowski.