The Clean Air XPRIZE is a 49-month competition with an additional two years of post-prize scaling impact work that will incentivize teams to develop technology to clean ambient air of toxic air pollution. Solutions must remove particulate matter and precursor gases from outdoor air while also balancing several scalability factors, including energy and water use, land footprint, and noise pollution.
While there are continued efforts to better control the release of pollutants into the air, as well as soon-to-be-deployed tech giving us a more nuanced understanding of particulate matter formation and long-distance transport, fine and ultrafine particles are carried in by seasonal winds, leading to numerous adverse health effects and increased strain on precious healthcare resources. The expected solutions from this XPRIZE will one day provide growing urban populations with a tool to defend their airshed from incoming transported air pollution and give people of all walks safe, clean air to breathe.
Why Clean Air?
Global megatrends are pointing toward a more populous, more affluent, and potentially more polluted world. The global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up nearly 25% from today’s 7.8 billion in 2019. People all around the world are leaving rural areas in favor of cities in the hope of capitalizing on the opportunities there. The middle class is larger than ever, leading to more consumerism. That means greater demand for food, water, energy, and transportation, all of which have associated emissions. More people in bigger cities fueled by more money leads to greater concentrated consumerism which leads to more air pollution.
We have identified three core problems that are keeping our Preferred Future State from being realized and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, absent major changes.
1. Tension between environmental protection & economic development
Until recently, the road to economic development required the burning of fossil fuels to power industrial and commercial work. From power generation to transportation to more advanced work such as petrochemical and solvent production, all of these require energy and the cheapest sources of energy to date have also been the dirtiest.
Over time we developed processes and technologies to reduce the associated emissions with industrial work, but these would incur additional costs that weigh on the bottom line, leading many to avoid their installation or proper utilization. This phenomenon is best summarized by the Environmental Kuznets Curve theory, which hypothesizes that environmental degradation is acceptable in return for economic growth until some per capita income turning point shifts political, industry, and consumer preferences. One need looks no further than the economic progression of China to see, firsthand, the environmental toll of rapid development and industrialization and how newfound affluence has placed mounting pressure on government officials and business leaders to reorder their priorities.
2. The enormous scale of the problem
The key to modern air pollution controls has been to focus on the source, where concentrations of pollution are at their highest. The instant pollution leaves the source, it begins mixing with ambient air, creating a dilute mixture. Once that happens, the cost to separate the dilute mix from ambient air skyrockets, so much so that few have even attempted to develop outdoor air pollution removal tools.
But that may be changing as air pollution becomes a more dire threat. The bulk of these dilute removal efforts have focused on carbon dioxide from the air using direct air capture machines. These solutions currently use large fans and different sorbents to pull CO2 from the air for later use. While promising and continually improving, these solutions are expensive due to their massive upfront investment and substantial energy requirements.
Applying these technologies to other pollutions presents additional challenges, such as removing an even more dilute pollution from ambient air (currently CO2 makes up roughly 0.04% of the atmosphere (+400 parts per million), while NOx on an unhealthy air quality day as defined by the US EPA is in the range of 600 parts per billion, or 0.006% of a given quantity of air) and the variety of air pollutions to address (particulates, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen dioxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and various volatile organic compounds).
3. The long-distance dispersal of air pollution affecting neighboring good actors
There is broad consensus that the most efficient way to reduce pollution is at the source. There is also broad acknowledgment that air pollution persists due to the inherent tension between profit and planet. The ramifications of this are that despite all efforts to reduce pollution locally, air quality can still be deteriorated by pollution carried across borders via atmospheric circulation. Perhaps the most prominent examples of this come from the Yellow Dust Storm phenomenon in east Asia. Seasonal dust storms have occurred across Mongolia and northern China for centuries, carrying natural coarse particles of dust thousands of kilometers to the Yellow Sea and Korean Peninsula. In recent decades, however, these dust storms have increased in intensity as rapid industrialization has swept the region and the creeping expansion of the Gobi Desert introduces more dust into the atmosphere.
Similar events in the U.S. and southeast Asia illustrate that the long-distance dispersal of air pollution is a global concern not confined to any one region of the world. While it is true that the ultimate solution to this problem may lie in more international and regional cooperation on emissions control efforts, and there is evidence of important progress being made in this area, recent history shows how an administrative change can alter the trajectory of current and future cooperation. How should governments proceed when national interests don’t align? We currently have few tools to deal with such situations.
In concert, these phenomenon could worsen air pollution as populations grow, leading to a proliferation of heart and lung disease, the loss of cognitive ability among children growing up with polluted air, a rise in social tension related to worsening health and environmental blight, to name just a few of the likely outcome of a more polluted urban airshed.
Preferred Future State
Imagine a future where people have access to clean, safe air; where asthma and chronic respiratory diseases are confined to the pages of history books; where children and parents can spend time outdoors, connecting with the natural world, free from the threat of air pollution.
The Clean Air XPRIZE is a four-year long prize, with two years of post-prize scaling impact activities. It is focused on spurring unparalleled innovation across a spectrum of biological and engineered systems to capture and remove harmful pollutants from the air we breathe.
- Total: $10,000,000
- Grand Prize: $5,000,000
- Bonus Awards: 500,000 awarded for innovations in waste disposal
- Finalist Milestone Awards: $250,000 awarded to ten teams advancing to the Finals