Knoxville-based startup SkyNano has been named one of the finalists for Tesla founder Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal Prize.
SkyNano will find out on Friday if it is one of 15 winners to receive a $1 million prize in the Milestone Prize category, which recognizes promising concepts for removing carbon pollution from Earth’s atmosphere.
SkyNano, which has developed manufacturing technology to capture and convert carbon into useful materials, is the only startup in Tennessee to be selected as a finalist.
“We are truly a local business in Tennessee,” said Anna Douglas, CEO and co-founder of SkyNano. “This technology was born in Vanderbilt, incubated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is thriving in the Knoxville area. It’s a proud moment to be able to represent Tennessee.”
XPRIZE is funded by the Musk and Musk Foundation and touted as the largest motivational award in history. The Big Four, named a few years from now, will get $30 million to $50 million.
More than 1,100 applicants from around the world have submitted proposals for XPRIZE, which encourages the development of large-scale decarbonization technologies.
Applicants had to demonstrate an effective carbon removal technology and then develop cost-effective plans to capture several billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.
It’s really exciting,” Douglas told Knox News. “There are so many teams working on such an important challenge. It’s kind of fun. It’s fun knowing that there are so many people working with you in different ways.”
Earlier this year, SkyNano announced that it had successfully created carbon nanotubes from pollutants captured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s natural gas plant. These nanotubes are a valuable material for making tires, lightweight bicycles, computer chips, and advanced batteries.
It’s potentially so useful that Professor Vanderbilt and SkyNano co-founder Carrie Bennett dubbed it “black gold.”
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Carbon nanotubes are typically created using high-energy processes, and are fossil fuel-intensive, resulting in a lot of toxic waste.
SkyNano nanotubes are manufactured by piping the resulting gas emitted into the atmosphere from a natural gas power plant to a lithium salt reactor. Carbon is captured from the flue gas and converted electrochemically into solid elemental carbon in the form of carbon nanotubes.
For XPRIZE, SkyNano had to demonstrate that its technology could capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, a task more difficult than capturing it from a single source of pollution.
“(My parents) are excited,” Douglas said. “They asked if we won the million dollars if they could get a new dishwasher. I said no, we need to use it to build things.”
Regardless of the outcome on Friday, SkyNano will continue to compete for future prizes as part of XPRIZE, which will award multiple prizes over multiple years.