A Bob Jones University cross-disciplinary team of students and faculty are competing in the Elon Musk-funded XPRIZE carbon removal challenge this semester to aid in the reduction of excess carbon in the environment.
The XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization, has been conducting cash prize competitions to drive innovation from the private sector since 1994, but The Musk Foundation’s $100 million contribution toward the project is the largest cash incentive prize ever given out in the foundation’s history. The prize will be portioned out in varying amounts to winners at different times along a four-year competition that includes several stages.
BJU completed the first stage of the competition by submitting a proposal on Oct. 1. The team will present their work to the BJU student body on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. in Levinson Hall. The Foundation will announce the winners of the student prizes in November.
Dr. Bill Lovegrove, head of the BJU department of engineering, serves as the main faculty adviser behind the project. “People like Elon Musk have been saying that if excess carbon dioxide in the environment is really going to cause problems down the road, then it’s not enough just to slow down emissions,” he said. “We have to find a way to get the carbon dioxide out of the air.”
“One of the requirements is you have to capture a kiloton of carbon [1,000 tons] over the course of a year,” Lovegrove said. “That’s the minimum to win the main prize of $50 million. Not only that, but the winner also has to actually prove that a kiloton of carbon was captured.”
The BJU team is particularly interested in the prizes being given out to students.
“Most of these prizes are not suited to students,” Lovegrove said. “Most of the prizes are for big commercial entities that have the money to put into pursuing the project. However, Elon Musk decided he wanted a student component in this competition with smaller prizes. The students are in the running for a prize of $100,000 upfront to continue their work.”
If the students earn the prize, BJU plans to use the money to produce the carbon-measuring device based on the prototype they have built. Ultimately, the team hopes to market the product to those interested in carbon capture technology.
“The students don’t have to build a working carbon capture plant,” Lovegrove said. “They have to work on one piece of the puzzle.” The team is working on a measurement tool. “A tool is needed to measure if a proposed plant is actually successful in capturing and storing carbon,” Lovegrove said.
The BJU team is focusing on a device that would specifically measure carbon storage in the soil, a potential solution to solve the excess carbon problem. A multi-disciplinary class was created for the 2021 fall
semester called Global Challenges. It was designed to build a team to submit a proposal for the student competition. It is triple listed as an engineering, science and business class. The class was temporarily virtual, beginning on Aug. 2 to meet the submission deadline.
With the proposal now submitted, Dr. Adele Dunn, a faculty member in the Division of Management and the marketing advisor for the project, is excited about the possibilities for the project moving forward. “The basis of the student proposal is, if they are funded, they would be able to take the project further into a second semester and then also into a summer internship to create a business and market the product,” she said.
Dr. David McKinney, a faculty member in the Division of Natural Science who is helping to direct the student team, stressed the importance of the cross-disciplinary model of the mission.“There’s a biology side to this project,” he said. “In all cases that we know of the science behind storing the carbon is going to require biological processes, specifically microbial metabolism. So, there is a biochemistry major on the team, and I’m the biology faculty member to represent that side.”
McKinney pointed out that this project requires very careful financial budgeting. Dunn and two business majors calculated the risks and rewards for different investments into the project. McKinney went on to say that there is currently no equipment that does what the team is trying to do, but the students are stepping up to create it.
Lovegrove and the team’s three engineering majors are collaborating on the product proposal. McKinney stressed that the detection of carbon is a chemical phenomenon, so chemistry faculty member Dr. Brian Vogt and a chemistry major were recruited.
“The way people detect carbon dioxide levels is with a fairly expensive single piece of equipment,” McKinney said. “A few people have suggested that we could do this with cheaper sensors spread over a larger area, but nobody has ever done that.”
Dunn also praised the multi-disciplinary model. “The fact that the project is cross-disciplinary, from a business perspective, makes me the most excited because that is the way the business world works,” she said. “You don’t just have business managers in the company. You also have engineers and software people. If it’s a tech company, you might also have chemists and biologists. Exciting things happen when the different disciplines cross.”
“I’ve watched them work together, and they all have been working well past midnight lately, and it is really encouraging to see them working so dedicated as a team,” she said. “It’s not like just one person is pushing the project forward. They’re all playing to their strengths.”
Steven Platt, a senior engineering major involved with the project, has never experienced a class quite like Global Challenges. “This class has been like ‘here is this big project. Do it have the—[the professors] will guide you, but we ourselves don’t necessarily know the right way to complete it.’ It has been a great experience but very different.”
Tricy Yue, a sophomore bio-chemistry major involved in the project is excited about the accomplishment of submitting the proposal. “It’s so cool to have the opportunity to do something that could really help the world and the environment,” she said. “Putting all these complicated things together and creating a proposal has been a big task. But we were able to accomplish it, and that sense of accomplishment is pretty rewarding.”