Indian American UCLA prof wins $7.5mn prize money for his invention


An Indian American professor and his team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has won a whopping $7.5mn in a prestigious competition.

On April 19, UCLA announced Indian American Professor Gaurav Sant and his team has become the first university team to win the grand prize in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE global competition.

Sant, who comes from a long line of civil engineers, said he and a team of students and researchers designed technology that captures carbon dioxide from power plants and other industrial facilities to make cement.

The technology reduces the carbon footprint by more than 50%, trapping the greenhouse gas permanently.

By mitigating the carbon footprint of concrete, the team’s invention could eventually be a major step in the global battle against climate change, the university said.

The UCLA CarbonBuilt team, led by Sant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, won $7.5 million in the competition’s track for technologies related to coal-fired power generation, the report noted.

Sant created a spin-off company, “CarbonBuilt,” to commercialize the technology, which he said will have widespread use. Some concrete blocks are already being used at UCLA, a physical symbol that could inspire the next generation of innovation.

Sant said the idea started in 2012 when his team started making very small batches of concrete infused with carbon dioxide emissions. However, it wasn’t until they entered the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition and did a test run at a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming that they saw their technology on a widespread scale. They made over 330,000 pounds of concrete blocks, he said. As a result, the UCLA team won the grand prize and $7.5 million. It is the only university to win an XPRIZE of any kind.

The winning technology is a first-of-its-kind, eco-friendly approach for taking carbon dioxide emissions directly from power plants and other industrial facilities — emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere — and infusing them into a new type of concrete invented by the team, it said.

“There’s luck, and there’s good engineering,” he said. “I think we were fortunate to have access to both of those two key secret sauces, so to speak, to make this come together.”

As it hardens and gains strength, the specially formulated concrete permanently absorbs and traps greenhouse gas.

Each CarbonBuilt concrete block stores about three-quarters of a pound of carbon dioxide — a significant amount considering an estimated 1 trillion concrete blocks will be produced annually by the year 2027, the UCLA report noted.

“I am absolutely thrilled that CarbonBuilt has won the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE,” Sant, who directs the UCLA Institute for Carbon Management and also holds a faculty appointment in the UCLA engineering materials science and engineering department, said in the report.

The funds from the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE award will support innovative carbon-mitigation research and technology development at UCLA Engineering. CarbonBuilt, which is a private company founded by Sant, has secured rights related to the project’s patent portfolio owned by UCLA to commercialize the technology, it said.