A startup composed of current and former University of Oklahoma students has won a prize for an invention designed to reduce and redistribute atmospheric carbon, revitalizing farmland and increasing agricultural production.

Bison Underground, a startup launched in August by U.S Marine Corps veteran and University of Oklahoma Ph.D candidate Steven Adams, was awarded a $250,000 share of a $5 Million Carbon Removal student competition created by XPRIZE.

The $100 million prize pool for XPRIZE, a nonprofit that encourages humanitarian technological advancements, is funded by Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation.

Bison Underground was one of 23 winners from 195 judged proposals and one of only five all-American teams sharing the $5 million prize.

The team of geologists, engineers, microbiologists and environmental scientists in Bison Underground say they’ll use the award to further global food security efforts and sustainable farming methods as they develop and test their prototype.

The science behind Bison Underground’s prototype is carbon sequestration, a process that captures carbon dioxide from the air to reduce the amount of the gas in the atmosphere from natural processes like breathing and human activities like burning oil and natural gas.

Bison Underground team members say their unique use of the carbon sequestration process will significantly improve agricultural conditions.

“There’s excess carbon in the atmosphere, but in many agricultural soils, organic carbon is depleted,” said Adams. “Our method takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it into soils.”

Adams said increasing carbon in soils helps plants grow healthier, ultimately increasing production. Carbon helps develop soil texture, giving it more permeability and longer water retention.

He said over the years, production will improve with less damage from droughts and extreme weather events.

The company’s focus is now on finalizing their design, building and testing their prototype and preparing for the main $95 million XPRIZE for Carbon Removal competition.

Building a mechanical system is a process where unforeseen challenges will likely arise, Adams said.

“We’ll work through those challenges and have a product we can test on soils, then do our research plan and measure the accumulation [of carbon] in soils,” Adams said.

Bison Underground Geologist Lily Pfeifer said they plan to connect with local farming communities, hearing specific needs to better determine how their mechanical system can address them.

Pfeifer said their goal is to sequester one billion tons of carbon into the soil, as that is a qualifying benchmark for XPRIZE.

“They would like to see a billion tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere annually, and that has been the major challenge people have been trying to solve for decades — to get to a scale that’s really impactful globally,” Adams said.

Adams said the Tom Love Innovation Hub at OU has provided guidance on the business side of their startup.

“Bison Underground is a great example of how our programs fit together to support founders at any stage in realizing their concepts,” Tom Wavering, the hub’s executive director, said in a statement.

Pfeifer said the guidance from the Tom Love Innovation Hub along with the funding and support from XPRIZE and the Musk Foundation has the Bison Underground team ready to put their ideas into action.

“We want to hear from the community as well,” Pfeifer said.

To learn more about Bison Underground, reach out and follow their progress, visit bisonunderground.com.

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.

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