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.
Someday soon, meat could be one of the most animal-friendly products out there.
Most of us associate PETA with animals, as opposed to straight environmentalism. But of course the two are related. PETA is offering $1 million to the first group to develop and successfully market synthetic meat. In this case, they're looking for chicken.
We're not talking chicken-flavored tofu here. We're talking about chicken-flavored chicken -- meat that looks, feels and tastes just like the stuff at the meat counter right now, only grown in the lab using chicken stem cells. And PETA's only going to pay up if it tastes just like the chicken meat from an actual chicken, because it has to be marketable on a large scale.
The primary motivation, of course, is humane treatment of animals. PETA is opposed to the methods of raising and slaughtering animals used in the livestock-farming industry. But there's another benefit to the prize: curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Livestock farming accounts for 9 percent of all global CO2 emissions from human activity, and 65 percent of the nitrous oxide [source: UN]. All totaled, the meat industry accounts for more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector [source: UN].
To win the $1 million, contestants have to sell the synthetic meat commercially, and at a price comparable to naturally grown meat, in at least 10 U.S. states by June 30, 2012.
Next up: Who can save the world using tools already on hand?
The Freedom Prizes are more about innovation than invention. Sponsored by the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the prizes reward groups who make the best use of current technologies to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
The motivation behind the prize is not so much saving the environment as saving the United States from the hazards of dependence on foreign oil, and also from the health effects of pollution. But the outcome is the same: fewer greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. The idea is to encourage people to use the energy-saving tools already at their disposal.
The prize totals more than $4 million, broken up into increments of $500,000 to $1 million each, awarded to the best ideas in five different areas: community, industry, government, military and schools. In each of the categories, the winners are those who devise and put into effect plans that cut back on fossil fuels in a way that can be implemented widely.
These programs might be things like using alternative energy to heat schools, greening automotive fleets or offering rebates on homeowners' association fees to people who use 10 percent less electricity per month. The competition began officially in 2008, and the foundation plans to begin distributing prize money some time in 2009.
Up next: Who can go the farthest and the fastest on the least?
Progressive Automotive X Prize
The X Prize is not a one-time thing. It's a whole foundation dedicated to giving millions of dollars to the best and the brightest of technological innovators in numerous fields, and it has turned its attention from space to Earth. The most recent X Prize aims to develop a car that can make a real dent in automotive greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Progressive Automotive X Prize is a joint effort between the X Prize Foundation and Progressive Insurance. They're offering $10 million to the people behind the best 100-mpg car.
It's not just about miles per gallon, though. The prize is about pragmatism as much as it's about environmentalism: This unbelievably fuel-efficient car has to be safe enough, smooth enough and cheap enough for mass consumption.
The X Prize knows how to draw attention to itself, which is part of its success. To win the $10 million, one car in each of two categories, mainstream and alternative, has to have the lowest overall time in two long-distance, urban road races planned for 2009 and 2010. The cars have to be as fast as they are Earth-friendly (or at least fast enough for typical highway driving -- we're probably not looking at Ferrari speeds here).
The mainstream winner must have a 200-mile (321-kilometer) range, while the alternative car has to last for 100 miles (160 kilometers) without refueling -- whatever "refueling" means in this context. Sixty teams from around the world have already signed up to compete.
Next up: Who can put the ocean to work?
Saltire Prize Challenge
The government of Scotland has proposed a juicy challenge to solve the world's energy problems: 10 million euros (about $15 million) to the team that develops the best ocean-power system.
Ocean power comes primarily in two forms: wave power and tidal power. Wave power generators float on top of the ocean, generating power as they're tossed about by waves. Tidal generators are under the sea, generating power from the force of tidal movements. They're kind of like wind turbines, but instead of wind they harness ocean currents.
Contestants can develop either one of these types of systems, and they have to test it in Scottish water. The goal is to come up with a viable, efficient and highly productive power system that relies on Scotland's hefty supply of water energy (25 percent of all potential ocean power in Europe is in Scottish waters) instead of on fossil fuels [source: Owen]. The winning design will be the one that supplies thousands of Scottish homes with all their electricity needs for two years, in the most efficient manner and requiring the least amount of maintenance.
The prize aims to further Scotland's ambitious goal of meeting half of its energy needs through renewable energy by 2020 [source: Owen].
Next up: Who can undo the damage?
Virgin Earth Challenge
In 2007, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and business mogul Richard Branson of Virgin Group announced a joint venture: the Virgin Earth Challenge, a competition to remove carbon dioxide from the air. It's a call to scientists and engineers to design a CO2 removal system that makes a real difference in long-term global warming predictions -- specifically, it must remove, at a minimum, a billion tons of CO2 per year during 10 years of operation. But that's not all.
The system has to be commercially viable, and it can't do any harm to the environment in the process of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air.
In exchange for this tall order, the Virgin Earth Challenge offers $25 million. It's the largest science and technology prize ever offered, and it'll be on the table for an initial five-year period [source: EL].
If engineers will be clambering for a $25-million chance to save the planet, imagine the rush for a $300-million endeavor. During his 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain suggested a $300-million, presumably government-sponsored prize for the inventor of a super high-efficiency car battery.
No word yet on whether the government is signing on.
For more information on environmental prizes and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
Many people think mushrooms have the potential to be environmental game-changers by replacing some plastics, meats and even eating through landfill waste.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Branson, Gore Announce $25 Million 'Virgin Earth Challenge.'" Environmental Leader. Feb. 9, 2007.http://www.environmentalleader.com/2007/02/09/branson-gore-announce-25-million-virgin-earth-challenge/
- Cooper, Michael. "McCain Proposes a $300 Million Prize for a Next-Generation Car Battery." The New York Times. June 24, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/us/politics/24campaign.html
- The Freedom Prizes.http://www.freedomprize.org/prizes/index.php
- Owen, James. "$15-Million Marine Energy Prize Launched in Scotland." National Geographic News. Dec. 2, 2008.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/12/081202-scotland-prize.html
- "PETA Offers $1 Million Reward to First to Make In Vitro Meat." PETA.http://www.peta.org/feat_in_vitro_contest.asp
- The use of special prizes to fuel global innovation. Gizmag. Feb. 13, 2007.http://www.gizmag.com/go/6822/
- "Win-win." The Economist. Sept. 8, 2008.http://www.economist.com/research/articlesBySubject/displaystory.cfm?subjectid=7933604&story_id=12077182
- "X PRIZE Foundation & Progressive Insurance Join Forces to Officially Announce the $10 Million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE." Progressive Automotive X Prize. March 20, 2008.http://www.progressiveautoxprize.org/press-release/x-prize-foundation-progressive-insurance-join-forces-to-officially-announce-the-1