5 Unclaimed Environmental Prizes

The $10 million X Prize was awarded to SpaceShipOne.
The $10 million X Prize was awarded to SpaceShipOne.
Stephanie S. Cordle/Getty Images


When the X Prize Foundation announced in 1996 it would pay $10 million to the team that could launch a privately funded spaceship into suborbit twice within two weeks, it got the world's attention.

Prizes are a common way of addressing the greatest technological hurdles facing a society. They're a long-standing tradition, going back at least to the 1700s when the British government offered 20,000 pounds for a maritime device that would measure longitude, resulting in clockmaker John Harrison's chronometer [source: Gizmag].

The nature of prize-driven competitions makes them effective tools for innovation. When a problem becomes a public prize, especially an international one, the field of potential problem-solvers expands exponentially, and experts who would normally be interested in the challenge are further spurred to action by the money, the recognition and the thrill of the race.

Financially speaking, the competition is a windfall for society, not just for the winner. Typically, all competitors combined spend far more money solving the problem than the prize is worth. In pursuit of the $10 million X Prize, contestants spent about $100 million on research and development [source: X Prize].

It makes sense, then, that one of the greatest problems facing the world today would warrant some big prize money. In the last 10 years, environmental prizes have hit the radar in a big way. They may not be quite as sexy as suborbital spaceflight, but the problem they address is bigger.

And in some cases, so is the money.

In this article, we'll take a look at five huge environmental prizes out there right now.