In Iceland, the idea of capturing CO2 is becoming a reality

Climeworks, a Swiss firm, will launch a new project called “Orca” in early September at an industrial site located about 25 miles southeast of Reykjavik, Iceland. Orca doesn’t produce anything, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s made up of eight long, wood-clad boxes. Each of these “collectors” is about the size of a tractor trailer and has 12 whirling fans that pull a stream of air within. A chemical agent called as a sorbent will be used within the collectors to capture CO2 that is present in the air. The sorbent’s surface will fill up on a regular basis. The trapped CO2 will have to be released at that moment. A burst of heat from a nearby hydrothermal vent is used to complete this operation at Orca. The CO2 will be routed from the collecting boxes to a nearby processing plant, where it will be mixed with water before being directed to a deep underground well.

That’s where it’ll be for the time being. Underground. Presumably, forever. The carbon dioxide collected from Icelandic air will react with basalt rocks and begin a multi-year process of mineralization, but it will never again serve as a heat-trapping atmospheric gas.

Climeworks claims that once Orca is operational, it will remove up to 4,000 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually. And there’s no reason to believe the facility won’t be able to pull it off. For one thing, the plant’s technology, known as direct air capture, or DAC, is based on concepts that have been used in submarines and spaceships for more than a half-century: Chemical agents are used to “clean” excess CO2 from the air, which is subsequently disposed away. Perhaps more importantly, Climeworks has already built smaller, less complex facilities in continental Europe, which have removed hundreds of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

The most important aspect of Orca, then, appears to be how it reflects the potential that direct air collection has come closer to being a commercial enterprise. Climeworks already has hundreds of clients who will pay for the permanent carbon offsets that will be buried beneath Icelandic soil, including individual consumers who have ordered carbon removal services directly from the firm as well as organizations such as the insurance giant Swiss Re. Furthermore, the Orca project will be the world’s biggest operational direct air capture plant to date, representing an eighty-fold increase in carbon removal efforts over the period of four years, according to the firm.

Climeworks and Orca, on the other hand, will very certainly be surpassed in the near future. A rival, Carbon Engineering of British Columbia, is planning to build even larger DAC plants — one in the United States’ Southwest, planned for completion in 2024, and another in Scotland, slated for completion approximately a year after the American project. Carbon Engineering’s facilities, which will use a somewhat different technology, will initially be fueled by renewable energy and will eventually remove roughly a million metric tons of CO2 from the environment on net.

“In our opinion, this will definitively answer the issue of whether direct air collection is viable at a big scale and at a reasonable cost,” said Steve Oldham, the CEO of Carbon Engineering. “As far as I can tell, we’ve moved on from academic research and feasibility to technical reality,” says the author.

Placing their initiatives inside the sobering math of climate change is one approach to assess their global worth. A number of models were used in the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to chart possible future emissions scenarios and make sense of how we might experience a rise of 1.8 degrees Celsius or 2.5 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees F to 4.5 degrees F) by the year 2100. About 31 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere last year. As the world economy recovers from the COVID-19 epidemic, that figure will almost certainly grow much higher this year. However, in order to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, we’d have to get our emissions down to near-zero levels by the middle of the century.

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Changing our electrical, transportation, and industrial systems to emissions-free energy sources and processes is, without a doubt, the greatest way to start. However, we may need to compensate aggressively for economic sectors that are too difficult to decarbonize quickly, such as air travel or steel manufacturing. This would necessitate actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Natural methods such as sequestering atmospheric CO2 in soil or planting new trees might be used to reduce carbon emissions. However, we could use more technical techniques like DAC, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, which includes growing plants, burning or fermenting them for energy, and then capturing and burying CO2 emissions.

And it’s at this point that the figures start to get overwhelming. According to Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the nonprofit Berkeley Earth who worked on mapping out possible emission pathways for the IPCC report, one of the most optimistic scenarios, which limits temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, requires massive mitigation efforts as well as about 17 gigatons — billions of tons — of CO2 removal per year by the end of the century. And, while planting trees may appear to be an ideal option for achieving such a goal, new forests are unlikely to be sufficient or long-lasting carbon sinks, especially in the aftermath of massive wildfires in Siberia and the American West. “Natural methods of removing CO2 are typically less desired than long-term geologic storage through BECCS or DAC,” Hausfather adds, explaining that this is due to the fact that storing carbon above ground in biomass is most likely transitory.

The question of whether DAC can make a significant contribution to carbon reduction targets still looms. The new Climeworks and Carbon Engineering factories, on the other hand, show that progress is being made, not simply hype. Jennifer Wilcox, a DOE official and expert on carbon capture technology, told me, “You’ve got these two businesses that are ready to launch today.” “However, how do they get from hundreds to millions of tons?” says the narrator. Then there’s the matter of whether they’ll ever reach billions.

In the course of reporting on climate solutions and carbon removal strategies over the past few years, I’ve been told by venture capitalists — investors I respect for their understanding of technology and climate change — that direct air capture could become one of the world’s largest industries by midcentury. If this turns out to be true, I won’t be surprised. Even small development in the DAC sector, on the other hand, appears to be conditional. The fundamental problem remains reducing emissions, which will be a Herculean job for governments and companies throughout the world as they phase out fossil fuels. Beyond that, the cost of DAC determines whether it “scales up” and has a major climatic impact. To put it another way, how much will it cost to capture a metric ton of CO2 from the air and store it in the earth, or in a long-lasting substance like concrete or carbon fiber? Direct air capture, it appears, will become a necessary and valuable technology if it can get closer to $100 per ton.

However, we aren’t certain. Climeworks executives informed me a few years ago that the cost of direct air capture was around $500-600 per ton. The firm isn’t saying how much the Orca factory will enhance that measurement, and it’s possible it doesn’t even know. Nonetheless, according to Wilcox of the DOE, there are physical and thermodynamic constraints that can serve as a lower bound. Wilcox believes that scientific restrictions will make it impossible for Climeworks or Carbon Engineering plants to reduce the cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere to much less than $100 per ton. And this might be the case in the future, regardless of how hard engineers try to reduce costs through lower-cost materials and assembly-line manufacturing. Carbon Engineering experts expect a similar conclusion in their latest industry analysis: The cost of DAC is expected to range from $94 to $232 per ton in the future. It may take decades, or it could never happen.

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However, the goal of new facilities like Orca or Carbon Engineering’s massive project in the Southwest is not to optimize the carbon removal process. The goal is to make a significant technological and commercial advance. Based on the future goals of CEOs at carbon removal firms, we can only conjecture on what DAC technology could achieve next. However, if costs approach $400 or $350 per ton in the next several years, it indicates that this is still a potential instrument that has to be refined. It might imply that this could be a realistic alternative for corporations such as airlines or fertilizer producers (or even government organizations) who may be forced to buy offsets to offset their carbon emissions in the future.

It’s probably easiest to think of the new facilities’ opening as the start of a multi-decade worldwide deployment process that’s been years in the making. Oldham, the CEO of Carbon Engineering, stated, “We’re certain our costs will continue to decline.” “Only if we deploy,” says the narrator. “Your expenses will never go down if you never deploy.”

Furthermore, according to Oldham, the world may be able to remove 70 to 80 percent of emissions by 2050 with massive mitigation measures. “But it would still leave approximately 20 to 30% of the carbon footprint we’ll have to erase,” he adds, equating to about 10 to 12 billion tons of CO2 each year. As a thought experiment, 10,000 Carbon Engineering factories, similar to the ones the firm is now planning, would be required. “I believe we can create many of these plants if the world puts its mind to it,” he added. “And this is something we’ve done before.” Take a look at how we rushed to get COVID vaccinations. Consider how we rushed to prepare for wars and began mass-producing planes.”

One fear is that DAC might become more divisive if it undermines global mitigation efforts. If carbon can be extracted from the air in a cost-effective and efficient manner, the rush to phase out fossil fuels may be slowed. That is, at least for the time being, a speculative risk. And, according to Oldham and colleagues in his sector, new state and federal rules are driving his industry in the right way. For example, a 45Q tax credit in the United States is helping to subsidize some of the high costs of carbon capture and sequestration. A federal infrastructure package that might be passed in the next months could fund up to $3.5 billion to help build big DAC plants. Meanwhile, a drive from the private sector has helped start-up DAC companies. Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify are just a few of the digital giants that have invested heavily in Climeworks and Carbon Engineering in order to become carbon neutral or negative. As a result of their pledges, the firms have been able to move on with planning and construction.

At the same time, money is starting to flow into “next generation” DAC concepts. The US Department of Energy recently put $12 million towards a variety of early-stage methods and component innovations. Several venture capital companies, including Breakthrough Energy and LowerCarbon Capital, have invested tens of millions of dollars more in projects. One new company, Noya, based in San Francisco, uses existing power plant cooling towers to create a “distributed” system of direct air capture stations that it hopes will be less expensive than building DAC plants from the ground up; another, Remora, based in Detroit, installs carbon-capturing sorbent technology on trucking rigs to vacuum up CO2 on long hauls. A new $100 million X-prize, sponsored by Elon Musk, will reward the most promising young carbon removal businesses for concepts that can be scaled up to gigatons per year over the course of four years.

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So there’s a lot of money and a lot of excitement in the sector. In light of the warmest month on record and near-term forecasts for future global temperatures, plenty of time is in short supply.

It’s important remembering at this point in the DAC’s growth that predicting how long it will take for technology to mature is notoriously difficult. One of the earliest functional photovoltaic solar cells was created at Bell Labs in New Jersey in the mid-1950s, and one of its creators, Daryl Chapin, projected that installing the devices as a power source on a typical American house would cost about $1.5 million. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a home can be outfitted with solar panels for approximately $20,000, and that investment pays itself over time with lower power costs. Solar PV is presently the cheapest source of electricity in various parts of the world.

The future issue for direct air capture technology is thus a familiar one: the unpredictable, decreasing arc of their cost. One conceivable future scenario is that the DAC industry will continue to cut costs, but will fall short of a pricing structure, such as $100 per ton, that makes it commercially viable as an offset. A key question for Klaus Lackner, who runs the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University and is a pioneer in the direct air capture field, is whether DAC will follow in the footsteps of solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines in terms of cost reductions, or whether it will remain a niche technology with inherent economic limits.

“In my perspective, assuming it performs like many other mass-produced technologies, it is not unrealistic to anticipate that by increasing carbon removal by about 300-fold, we should be able to avoid paying $100 per ton,” Lackner adds. “Aside from that, my crystal ball is hazy. But if this continues to develop at a thousand-fold rate, we should be at $50 per ton, or maybe $70 or $80.”

Lackner feels that DAC is in a better position now than solar photovoltaics was in the 1970s, when prices were unreasonably high. Solar technology required to cut prices by approximately 100 times for mainstream adoption, he said. To be desired, DAC just has to cut expenses by a factor of ten. He admits that there’s no assurance that DAC will continue to succeed in the same way as it grows. He also warns that, even if direct air capture prices plummet, the world would still require a legislative framework for its implementation in order to have a meaningful influence on climate change. As essential as it is to develop technology, he believes it will be just as necessary to push businesses and governments to “treat CO2 as a waste product” and pay to clean it up.

The next several years should be revealing in light of this. We may soon find out whether DAC is a success—or whether the technology, which has been criticized for being quixotic, will face a brick wall of inefficiency. If the former is true, we will have a valuable tool in our climate toolkit. If it’s the latter, the objective of creating a habitable planet will almost definitely become more difficult. The job ahead of us, already daunting in terms of political, technological, and economic obstacles, would become considerably more so.

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