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Student Sam Wenger at work. Photo: Louise Cooper/USYD.
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$250,000 from Elon Musk to Sydney students for carbon removal

10 November 2021
Funding for collaborative ‘negative emissions’ project

A team of University of Sydney students has won a US$250,000 prize, awarded by Elon Musk's Foundation and announced at COP26. With industry partners and an academic supervisor, they have developed a solar-powered unit that removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

The University of Sydney team behind Sydney Sustainable Carbon: Top (Eleanor Kearns, Ryan Pratt, Zexin Lee, Professor Deanna D’Alessandro); Bottom (Neave Taylor, Ada Fang, Lyndon Hall, Qinyi Gu, Sam Wenger)

The University of Sydney team behind Sydney Sustainable Carbon. Top: Eleanor Kearns, Ryan Pratt, Zexin Lei, Professor Deanna D’Alessandro. Bottom: Neave Taylor, Ada Fang, Lyndon Hall, Qinyi Gu, Sam Wenger.

The philanthropic research foundation of tech billionaire Elon Musk has awarded USD$250,000 (AUD$338,000) to a University of Sydney team developing technology to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The funding was announced at the Sustainable Innovation Forum at COP26 in Glasgow.

Their project, Sydney Sustainable Carbon uses renewable solar power and has no association with carbon capture and storage or fossil fuel companies.

The team of students and their academic supervisor is collaborating with Australian renewables start-up Southern Green Gas along with Corporate Carbon and Swiss Re.

If successful, the project could ultimately attract a $50 million grant from the Musk Foundation, aimed at creating a new manufacturing sector and jobs for Australia.   

This funding could help develop a novel Australian approach in environmental technology known as Negative Emissions Technology.

This involves the removal and permanent storage of carbon dioxide from the air, with no association to any fossil fuel source or company.

Once removed from the atmosphere the CO2 could also be used to support sustainable agriculture and horticulture.

For example, algae –a valuable source of high protein food and omega 3 food supplements – could be grown more effectively and sustainably using CO2. Australia’s organic fruits, vegetables, and flowers, typically grown in greenhouses, could also be grown more sustainably using this CO2.

The University team, overseen by Professor Deanna D’Alessandro from the University of Sydney Nano Institute and the School of Chemistry, is led by PhD student Eleanor Kearns.

It is one of 23 student teams awarded a prize out of 195 applicants worldwide.

“Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time, and Australia is uniquely positioned to deliver the solution," Professor D’Alessandro said

"It has around 300 million hectares of non-arable land with high solar intensity.

“We hope the recognition brought about by this award will encourage the Australian Government to support Negative Emissions Technology in the near future.”

About Sydney Sustainable Carbon

Southern Green Gas’s first-generation DAC prototype that contains the University of Sydney’s material.

Southern Green Gas’s first-generation DAC prototype that contains the University of Sydney’s material.

The project provides a new, massively scalable method for removing COfrom the atmosphere, using a solar-powered process called Direct Air Capture (DAC).

Carbon dioxide is captured using metal-organic framework (MOF) materials. One teaspoon of the material, available to capture CO2, is equivalent to the surface area of a football field.

Each DAC unit will capture two tonnes of CO2 per year and can be deployed in their millions.

The University of Sydney team is developing and synthesising the MOF materials, along with the 3D printing protocols for the materials in the second-generation DAC units.

Southern Green Gas’s role was to design the units to be powered solely by renewable energy (solar PV panels), recyclable, and for low-cost mass manufacture.

Project partners Southern Green Gas, Corporate Carbon and Swiss Re are currently developing a demonstration project.

The team will use the award funds to enhance their prototype unit.

Learn more about the project.

A visualisation of the second-generation units once rolled out en masse.

A visualisation of the second-generation units once rolled out en masse.


About the award

The University of Sydney students are winners in a $5m Carbon Removal Student Competition. The award program, supported by XPRIZE and the Musk Foundation, was launched to fund early-stage concepts from the next generation of carbon removal innovators.


Hero image: Student Sam Wenger at work. Photo: Louise Cooper/USYD.

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