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The NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize competition seeks to turn carbon dioxide from a liability into an asset, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

Oil sands producers are throwing their weight behind a new race to convert carbon emissions into a usable product through XPrize, the high-profile American non-profit organization more often associated with commercial space travel or lunar rover technology.

This time, XPrize is offering a $20-million (U.S.) prize to an individual or team who can come up with the best way to turn the waste emissions from the burning of fossil fuels into a valuable product. The competition seeks to turn CO2 from a liability into an asset, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. NRG Energy, Inc., the largest independent power producer in the United States, and Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) are putting up the prize money for the four and a half year competition. Eventually the new technologies will be tested at a coal power plant or a natural gas facility.

"A significant part of oil sands production is performed by heating water into steam, by combusting natural gas and then using the steam to separate the oil from the sand," Dan Wicklum, chief executive of COSIA, said Tuesday. "Anyone on the planet with a good idea – we want to hear from them. It could be a university professor, a student, a small company, a big company, a government employee."

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The $20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize, one of five active XPrizes, is the second-largest cash award ever offered by the non-profit organization.

XPrize, founded by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, has become known for offering up major cash prizes for technologies related to commercial space travel – including the Ansari XPrize, which spurred the world's first privately developed spacecraft – and health and environmental technologies. With a goal of pushing "the limits of what's possible to change the world for the better," the board of trustees for XPrize includes heavyweights such as Larry Page and Arianna Huffington, and others who have been on the record as critics of the oil sands, including filmmaker James Cameron.

COSIA is an alliance of 13 oil sands producers, representing 90 per cent of production from the Canadian oil sands. The Canadian oil sands industry has seen its pipeline access to U.S. and new overseas markets hampered by regulatory delays. Much of the lag in pipeline construction stems from environmental opposition to the oil sands and its increasing greenhouse gas production.

Eight of the 13 producers are contributing to the XPrize kitty. Mr. Wicklum said even in the current period of low oil prices, producers are still committed to research and development to improve the industry. "Environmental responsibility is not tied to the price of oil."

This is not the only large climate change prize on offer. Alberta's Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) is offering $35-million (Canadian) in research awards, including $10-million for the final winner, as part of a "Grand Challenge" to find commercially viable applications for the waste gas.

Sir Richard Branson's $25-million (U.S.) Virgin Earth Challenge – another global competition to find a commercially viable way of permanently removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – launched in 2007, but has yet to come to a conclusion. The competition committee says none of the finalists have yet met enough of the criteria to be put to judgment.

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