OU startup Bison Underground wins Musk Foundation prize

Published: Tuesday, November 16, 2021 By: Heide Brandes Source: The Journal Record

Steve Adams, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and current Ph.D. student, launched Bison Underground this summer along with other student geologists, engineers, microbiologists and environmental scientists to address climate issues. As part of the competition for the XPrize, the team created a blueprint for an invention that will not only remove carbon from the atmosphere, but restore agricultural soil quality by redistributing carbon into farmland to enhance agricultural quality and yields.

“We were interested in carbon and how to solve issues of having an excess amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” said Adams. “Over the years, I’ve been trying to wrestle with that problem, and we believe we have a solution on how to take that excess amount of carbon in the atmosphere and put it into agricultural soils.”

That idea won in the award program, which is part of the $100 Million XPrize for Carbon Removal supported by the Musk Foundation. The XPrize was launched to fund early-stage concepts from the next generation of carbon removal innovators and to remove barriers to entry for those interested in the main $100 million competition, making the XPrize the largest incentive prize in history.

Bison Underground team members said their idea will help to bolster global food security, encourage sustainable farming practices, provide economic opportunities for farmers, and limit harmful soil-additives. Including its academic mentors, the team is over 50% female and includes veteran and reserve military members, immigrants and first-generation college students, highlighting the power of a diverse and multidisciplinary team.

Bison Underground joined 23 winning teams that will split the $5 million prize. With $250,000, Bison Underground will begin to design and test its prototype over the next year while also searching for additional funding.

“When they announced it on Nov. 10, I was convinced there must be a mistake or something. I read the email about 10 times,” Adams said.

“We think carbon removal will be a major part of the economic future, especially in Oklahoma, going forward. We are developing questions focused on helping farmers. Farmers need carbon in the soil, and that large amount of carbon in soil is crucial to that transition.”

Bison Underground received mentorship from the Tom Love Innovation Hub at the University of Oklahoma, including through its OK Catalyst Roadmap and Start-Hub programs, as well as the OU School of Geosciences in the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy.

“As a geologist, I know how much untapped potential there is in soils when it comes to pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. As someone with family history in farming, I also know how enhancing soil quality can improve agricultural productivity and help ensure that farmers stay in business and that everyone has access to fresh produce,” said Adams.

“And as a veteran and first-generation college student, I know how catalytic investments like the XPrize can enable people from a range of backgrounds to be at the forefront of innovation to solve the world’s most dire problems.”

Agricultural soils provide an enormous reservoir for carbon, he said, but many conventional farming practices erode soil and release carbon back to the atmosphere.

“An agricultural transition to regenerative practices will ultimately promote crop diversity, healthy produce and food security for all” Adams said.

In order to be eligible for the Carbon Removal Student Competition, student teams needed at least 50% of their members to be currently enrolled in an educational institution with the support of an academic adviser or business leader able to act as a formal mentor. All submissions were reviewed by a panel of expert third-party judges who considered the innovation, ability to reach gigaton scale, team resources and capabilities as well as project plan feasibility in their selection process.

This story originally ran on the JournalRecord.com. 

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