Climeworks: Everything You Need to Know

direct air carbon capture company

There is just eight per cent of the world’s carbon budget remaining, according to the Global Carbon Budget report 2020.1 Yet, we continue to increase our global emissions each year.2 If humans continue to increase the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere above this, average global temperatures will exceed 1.5°C with catastrophic changes.3 Companies like Climeworks are trying to redress this dire situation.

Climeworks founders, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, want to use technology to counter climate change.4 They have developed the world’s first commercial direct air capture (DAC) plant.5 They are also building the world’s largest DAC facility in Iceland.6 

This is undoubtedly useful technology. But, we need to remove and permanently store an estimated 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050.7 Our available technology is currently insufficient to meet this target.

How did Climeworks set a precedent for other carbon capture companies?

Climeworks established the world’s first commercial carbon removal technology. It recycles and reuses some of the carbon captured. Alternatively, it completely removes it from the air by storing it permanently underground.8 Repurposing the CO2 in other industries helps to reduce the costs of direct air capture facilities. However, it does not keep it from entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, DAC does not necessarily prevent climate change.

agriculture with co2 from direct carbon capture

Selling captured carbon dioxide

Commercial agriculture, food and beverages industries, the energy sector and the automotive industry buy pure CO2. For example, Climeworks’ plant in Hinwil – a small town outside of Zurich – sells CO2 to a local fruit and vegetable grower.9 The gas is referred to as a ‘greenhouse gas’ for its role in heating the Earth.10 However, Climeworks brings new meaning to the name, as it utilises captured CO2 in actual greenhouses. There, it boosts the growth of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines.11

Nevertheless, selling CO2 is not enough to cover the plant’s costs. Climeworks’ direct air capture process costs USD $600 per tonne of CO2 captured. The company hopes to reduce this to USD $100 by 2025 or 2030.12 But, further cost reduction is unlikely to come from selling more CO2 to greenhouses or drink companies. The total annual market for CO2 for these purposes amounts to about 5.4 million tonnes of CO2.13

Moreover, Climeworks’ founders intend for the CO2 to be buried underground.14 Climeworks’ website states, “If the carbon dioxide is stored, it is permanently removed from the air, which lowers its level in our atmosphere and counteracts climate change”.15 Any other use of the gas means that the DAC plant is not contributing towards net-zero emissions.

How has direct air capture technology that Climeworks uses changed since 2017?

In 2017, Climeworks opened the first industrial-scale DAC plant.16 Today, it has 15 machines in operation across Europe. Some facilities belong to Climeworks. Others are sold to customers.17 The technology Climeworks uses changes over time. This is evident in the construction plans for its new DAC plant in Iceland, Orca.18

Climeworks: Direct air capture and Iceland

Unlike previous plants, such as the one in Hinwil, Switzerland, Orca will not sell the CO2 it captures. Instead, it will store about 3,600 tonnes of CO2 per year underground. This will make it the largest climate-positive facility in the world.19

Climeworks will utilise the technology of its Icelandic partner company, Carbfix. Both companies have operations at the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. This is the power source for Climeworks’ Icelandic DAC machines. Carbfix mixes Climeworks’ captured carbon with water. They pump it deep underground. Through the process of natural mineralisation, the CO2 reacts with the basalt rock. Over a few years, it then becomes stone. In other words, it removes it from the atmosphere.20

Iceland is an ideal location for this process. The island nation is a potent geothermal region thanks to its volcanic origin. Waste heat from the Hellisheiði geothermal plant is used to separate CO2 from a solvent that captures it from the air. Water from the same power plant also transports the CO2 2,000 metres below the Earth’s surface.21 

pollution from factories

Furthermore, Icelandic rock also has an ideal composition for storing large quantities of CO2. Climeworks’ DAC technology takes advantage of these benefits to reduce the energy required for capturing and storing CO2.22

Can Climeworks’ technology prevent climate change?

Climeworks acknowledges that its technology is not a silver bullet to the problem of climate change. Its website is clear that “direct air capture is a complementary approach to planting trees”.23 Trees absorb CO2 naturally and store it in their biomass and the surrounding soil.24 Therefore, they perform the same role as DAC for free. We must protect and enhance natural carbon sinks, such as forests, to combat climate change.

All of the DAC and carbon capture, utilisation and storage facilities in the world cannot compete with the greenhouse gas emissions we are continually causing. Since 1970, emissions of CO2 have increased by about 90 per cent. Fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed around 78 per cent of all emissions. Agriculture, deforestation and other changes to land use are the next largest cause.25 

Above all, we need to stop producing and consuming fossil fuels to combat climate change. Each year, we cause more emissions. Consequently, we have now reached 36 billion tonnes annually.26 Climeworks and other carbon capture companies cannot solve this problem alone.

We must address the issue at its root. This means stopping the consumption of fossil fuels, the destruction of our forests and the expansion of agricultural practices. 

Climeworks: Everything You Need to Know graphic

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Sources

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