Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Alberta's X Prize Opportunity: Tailings Ponds

Leaking tailing ponds - the "dirty" water left over from the process of getting oil out of the oil sands projects in Northern Alberta - is a major challenge. The water is heavily polluted by sediment and cannot be put back in the water table. Yet a 1,000 gallons a day are currently leaking from the tailings ponds, which are massive.Just one pond is 540,000,000 cubic litres - the second largest damn in the world (the first is China's Three Gorge's).

Many people are at work on how to "solve" the problem of this dirty water. But it is a slow process.

What Alberta should do here is to offer a prize of $50 million to any organization that can produce a solution which can "clean" this water and return it to the water table. The Province should put up 30% of this prize and the industry should fund the balance. An international expert panel should adjudicate the winner. We should use the X Prize Foundation to manage this on our behalf.

What are the real costs? Zero. This will make a massive difference to the perception of the oil sands world wide and make the oil saleable in those jurisdictions who look like banning its purcgase due to environmental consequences.

Why not just ask the University of Alberta to solve this problem? The problem has been with us for a considerable period of time and has been known about for longer. If they oculd have solved it, they would have done. They can enter for tghe $50 million just like everyone else.

Why use this method to "solve" this problem? We just don't know where the solution is going to come from. By challenging the world to solve it and offering a decent reward, we can really use the talents of the world to get behind this issue and solve it faster with little (or no) upfront costs.

Who would benefit?
First of all, Albertan's would - they would see immediate benefits in a reduction in water use by the oil sands companies(the water could be recycled instead of stored) and our oil would be more likely to be sold to more places at a lower cost of production. Second, the world would benefit - if we can clean up these waters, think where else such a solution could be used. Alberta would gain brownie points if we made this solution a low cost solution for Africa, for example.

Will this work? If the incentives are big enough, it will work. $50 million plus ongoing revenue from the use of the "solution" makes it attractive. Look at the success of the X Prize to date.

Why wont this happen? We are stuck with an old model of innovation which sees grand challenges as something you ask teams to work on. Many are just not ready for wikeconomic solutions, which is what this is.

Who could make this happen? A very smart Premier of Alberta.

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