A UCLA team in the finals of a multi-million dollar, international prize for turning carbon emissions into commercial products, is preparing for a major showcase of its advance.
Using a first-of-its-kind system, the team aims to decrease the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from a coal-burning power plant by turning the waste gas into concrete-based building products.
Carbon Upcycling UCLA is one of ten teams in the final round of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The competition is scheduled to conclude in 2020, when two prizes of $7.5 million each will be awarded to a team in each of two energy tracks, coal and natural gas, that demonstrates the most viable technology for turning carbon dioxide emissions into valued products. The UCLA team is one of five in the competition’s coal track.
In February 2020, Carbon Upcycling UCLA will move into the Wyoming Integrated Test Center to demonstrate its system at an industrial scale. The test center is part of Dry Fork Station, a coal-based power plant outside the town of Gillette, Wyo.
The demonstration of UCLA’s technologies is supported by a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The team is working with Susteon, a sustainable technologies development company in North Carolina, to help transition their system up to an industrial level.
Carbon Upcycling UCLA plans to turn carbon dioxide from flue gas—that is, the exhaust gases from a coal-burning power plant—into pre-fabricated concrete blocks called “CO2Concrete,” a name that the team has trademarked. The team will operate the system for over 30 days, with the goal of producing up to 10 tons of the product each day. The blocks will then be used in demonstration construction projects.
The team has already demonstrated a prototype system and produced the concrete components and are currently finalizing the design of the equipment for the field test.
“Our vision is that CO2Concrete will be at the center of a much more sustainable and environmentally responsible construction ecosystem,” said team lead Gaurav Sant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and materials science and engineering at UCLA Samueli. “We think we have a revolutionary process and product. Not just because of our carbon utilization technology, which alone is really exciting, but our end product appeals to both energy and building construction companies to enable them to meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”
The carbon-to-concrete technology throws a one-two punch at carbon dioxide emissions, a major greenhouse gas and an underlying cause of climate change.
First, it captures carbon dioxide gas before it exits the power plant, reducing emissions to the atmosphere.
Second, it cuts down on the use of traditional cement, the binding agent in concrete. The production of cement results in more than 8% of annual man-made carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The resulting product will have a carbon footprint at least 50% lower than current equivalent building materials, Sant said.
The UCLA team has previously received $500,000 from the XPRIZE organization after reaching the finals in 2018, and a $1.5 million gift in 2017 from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation to support the project.
Sant is also the director of the Institute for Carbon Management at UCLA.
The XPRIZE organization has sponsored similar “moonshot” competitions for space travel, ocean science, education and personal health.