Climeworks Turns On the World's Largest Carbon Capture and Storage Plant

The Iceland operation can remove 4,400 tons of CO2 from the air each year.

Climeworks in Iceland


Swiss startup Climeworks just flipped the switch on its direct carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility in Iceland. Treehugger's Emily Rhode answered the question of what is direct air capture and if it works, explaining the process being used by Climeworks, where fans blow air across a solid sorbent that absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2). When the sorbent has absorbed as much as it can, it is then sealed off from the outside and heated, releasing the CO2 it has collected.

And the technology does work: It has been used for years in submarines and spacecraft. However, it takes a lot of energy to do this. Rhode notes:

"The heating process for both liquid solvent and solid sorbent direct air capture is incredibly energy-intensive because it requires chemical heating to 900 C (1,652 F) and 80 C to 120 C (176 F to 248 F), respectively. Unless a direct air capture plant relies solely on renewable energy to produce heat, it still uses some amount of fossil fuel, even if the process is carbon negative in the end."
Schematic of carbon capture
CC 4.0 Christopher Beuttler et al

This is why Iceland is such a hot spot to try this out; they have renewable energy from their geothermal generating plants like the Hellisheidi Power Plant 15 miles outside of Rekjavik, and lots of superhot water to heat the sorbent.

storing CO2 in the ground
CC 4.0 Christopher Beuttler et al

There is an additional benefit to locating in Iceland: it is made of volcanic rock like basalt. Working with another company, Carbfix, the concentrated CO2 is dissolved in water which is pumped deep into the ground. According to Carbfix:

"Carbonated water is acidic. The more carbon you can pack into water, the more acidic the fluid will become. Carbfix's carbonated water reacts with rocks underground and releases available cations such as calcium, magnesium and iron into the water stream. Over time, these elements combine with the dissolved CO2 and form carbonates filling up the empty space (pores) within the rocks. The carbonates are stable for thousands of years and can thus be considered permanently stored. The timescale of this process initially surprised scientists. In the CarbFix pilot project, it was determined that at least 95% of the injected CO2 mineralizes within two years, much faster than previously thought."

The Orca plant can remove 4,409 U.S. tons (4,000 metric tons) of CO2 per year. Ian Wuzbacher, co-CEO and co-founder of Climeworks, claims this is a very big deal:

”Orca, as a milestone in the direct air capture industry, has provided a scalable, flexible and replicable blueprint for Climeworks’ future expansion. With this success, we are prepared to rapidly ramp up our capacity in the next years. Achieving global net-zero emissions is still a long way to go, but with Orca, we believe that Climeworks has taken one significant step closer to achieving that goal.’’

How much CO2?

Installing Climeworks machinery
Installing collector. Climeworks

But as he says, we have a long way to go. Let's put this into some kind of perspective; the average American per capita emissions per year is 17.7 U.S. tons (16.06 metric tons). So the entire Orca project removes and stores the carbon emissions of 248 average Americans.

Let's put it another way: A Ford F-150 emits an average of 5.1 U.S. tons (4.6 metric tons) of CO2 per year, so the Orca plant absorbs the equivalent of 862 gasoline-powered F-150 pickups. Ford sells 2,452 pickup trucks every day so the Orca plant essentially offsets 8.5 hours of Ford's production.

This is not a drop in the bucket; this is more like a molecule in a bucket.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of the upfront carbon emissions from making all this machinery and piping. Climeworks claims it is using half as much steel as in earlier prototypes, but there is no analysis of the payback time, which it actually has sucked up more CO2 than was emitted making the thing.

And can this really scale? This is just the first major plant, and Climeworks expects the cost per ton of CO2 removed to drop considerably from the current $1,200 per ton to about $300 per ton in 2030. But this only works where you have lots of cheap renewable energy to run the fans or a source of heat, and sitting on top of an island made of basalt helps too.

One really doesn't want to rain on the parade here, but the numbers don't work. It also plays into the hands of the net-zero crowd who think that we can solve our climate problems with techno-fixes that suck CO2 either out of the air or out of burning trees, or out of natural gas, instead of cutting emissions in the first place.

Or as climate scientist Peter Kalmus writes in The Guardian:

“Net-zero” is a phrase that represents magical thinking rooted in our society’s technology fetish. Just presuppose enough hypothetical carbon capture and you can pencil out a plan for meeting any climate goal, even while allowing the fossil fuel industry to keep growing. While there may be useful negative-emissions strategies such as reforestation and conservation agriculture, their carbon capture potential is small compared with cumulative fossil fuel carbon emissions, and their effects may not be permanent. Policymakers are betting the future of life on Earth that someone will invent some kind of whiz-bang tech to draw down CO2 at a massive scale."
scale of collectors

None of this is to deny that Orca and Climeworks have achieved something important here. They have demonstrated that one can suck CO2 right out of the air and get rid of it. But given the money and metal it takes to do remove just 4,409 U.S. tons (4,000 metric tons) per year, it also demonstrates that technical fixes won't get us where we've got to go. There is too much carbon, too little time, and too little Iceland.

View Article Sources
  1. "Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle." Office of Transportation and Air Quality, 2018.