For years, experts have been debating whether sucking greenhouse gases out of the air using carbon capture technologies are a viable and effective way of curbing emissions on a large scale. Well, we may find out soon, at least on a smaller scale, thanks to the world's first commercial plant for capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air, now operating near Zurich, Switzerland.
The facility run by Climeworks is the first to extract CO2 from the air and sell it directly to buyers, such as companies that run greenhouses growing vegetables, or for producing carbonated drinks and carbon-neutral fuels. While the amount that the plant will be able to take in is not much -- only 900 tons annually or about the equivalent emissions from 200 cars -- it may be the first step in a larger roll-out in the future, says Climeworks co-founder Christoph Gebald:
Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the 2-degree target [for global temperature rise] of the international community.
Here's how it works: 18 huge fans suck in ambient air, which is filtered and goes through a process of adsorption and desorption to extract the CO2. The cleaner air is then blown out, and the captured CO2 piped over to a nearby greenhouse farm to help grow tomatoes and cucumbers.
The fans also sit on top of a municipal waste disposal company, where the incineration process produces a lot of heat. This heat is recovered and is used to heat up the saturated filters to release and capture the CO2 for use elsewhere. These filters are reusable and can be used several thousand times.
Climeworks was started by Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, both engineers, who got the idea back in 2008 as graduate student when they first observed a greenhouse farm actually ordering tanks of CO2 to be trucked in and used for agricultural production. Gebald and Wurzbacher realized that CO2 could be directly filtered from air and used instead. They found funding have since developed the process into its current form, though they acknowledge that in order to reach the company's goal of capturing 1 percent of global carbon emissions by 2025, they will have to build 250,000 similar plants. Such carbon capture facilities would be most cost-effective and efficient when placed right beside fossil fuel power plants, but this option is still costly compared to solar and wind power.
Nevertheless, with the broader goal of reducing global carbon emissions, a variety of possible solutions will be needed. Curbing deforestation, restoring marshes and peatlands, and utilizing sustainable agricultural techniques are other vital carbon-reduction strategies. Whether more carbon capture facilities such as this one will be built remains to be seen, but it's encouraging to see that it can be one of many that are being explored. For more information, visit Climeworks.