Students win $100,000 prize from Elon Musk’s carbon-removal competition

Led by senior Laura Stieghorst, a team of University of Miami students will use the award to advance their idea for reducing atmospheric carbon levels

Accelerated Carbonate Ion Dissolution and Dispersal (ACIDD) team members
From top left are Drew Rich, Chris Langdon, Anwar Khan, Zach Berkowitz, Nancy Lewis, Laura Stieghorst, Isabelle Fitzpatrick, and Eden Leder. Photo: Jenny Hudak/University of Miami

Last spring, as Laura Stieghorst watched Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket blast off from Cape Canaveral, the University of Miami undergraduate wished the billionaire would pour as much money into saving the planet from climate change as he was enabling people to leave it.

Just a few days later, Stieghorst was delighted to learn that the Musk Foundation had launched the $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal project, a global contest aimed at generating ideas for extracting and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or oceanand the prizes included a total of $5 million for ideas from students.

Stieghorst immediately got to work. She spent her summer researching various methods for ocean-based carbon removal and was intrigued by those that would increase the alkalinity of the water and neutralize the acidification that, along with warming waters, is imperiling coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. She connected with Greg Rau, a renowned carbon cycle expert who patented such a process, and then she recruited a team of students and faculty members from five schools across the University. They spent seven intense weeks developing a proposal for the XPRIZE. 

On Wednesday, Stieghorst and her Accelerated Carbonate Ion Dissolution and Dispersal (ACIDD) student team members—Isabella Arosemena, Zach Berkowitz, Jeanette Betke, Isabelle Fitzpatrick, Anwar Khan, Eden Leder, Nancy Lewis, and Drew Rich—learned their work had paid off. XPRIZE announced that ACIDD is one of five student projects awarded $100,000 to advance Musk’s goal of removing 1 billion tons of CO₂ per year from the atmosphere. 

The ACIDD proposal was based on a process developed by Rau, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Planetary Hydrogen, a carbon-capture startup. The process generates a low-carbon form of alkalinity using waste products from mining, water, and renewable electricity, and harvesting valuable byproducts such as hydrogen—a key ingredient to a decarbonized energy system. When added to the ocean, the alkalinity enhances the ocean’s uptake of CO₂ from the air while countering local ocean acidification.

“Essentially, it’s like one big Alka Seltzer,” Stieghorst said. “When the tablet dissolves in water, it can neutralize acid. Distributing this liquid in the ocean will have a similar effect. Accelerating it to human-time scales can safely lock away our anthropogenic carbon emissions for more than 100,000 years.”

Working with Planetary Hydrogen, the ACIDD team will assess the environmental impact of the process by measuring its effects on laboratory corals.

University of Miami (via EurekAlert!), 10 November 2021. Press release.

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