Is carbon capture there? – The New York Times
This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which examines efforts around the world to make a difference.
Stephan Hitz took a break from working on a strange-looking machine in an otherworldly landscape in Iceland and searched for a âStar Warsâ analogy to explain his work on the frontier of climate technology.
âI feel like I came to the dark side to become a Jedi warrior,â he joked, bracing himself against a cold wind blowing over the treeless expanses of chilled lava and distant volcanoes.
The 37-year-old service technician from Zurich worked for nine years in the aviation and marine industries before joining Climeworks, a Swiss start-up which is trying to repair the damage caused by such highly polluting industries.
âIt gives you the added satisfaction of knowing that you are helping the planet instead of damaging it,â he said.
Hitz and his small team of technicians operate Orca, the world’s largest commercial direct air capture (DAC) device, which in September began extracting carbon dioxide from the air at a site 20 miles away. from the capital, Reykjavik.
As the wind blew clouds of steam escaping from the nearby Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, a slight hum came from Orca, which looks like four huge air conditioners, each the size of a posed shipping container. one over the other.
Each container contains 12 large round fans powered by renewable electricity from the geothermal power plant, which suck the air into steel collection tanks where carbon dioxide or CO2, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming , chemically binds to a sand-like filter material.
When heat is applied to this filter material, it releases CO2, which is then mixed with water by an Icelandic company called Carbfix to create drinkable sparkling water.
Several other companies are working to extract carbon from the air in the United States and elsewhere, but it is only here, on the volcanic plateaus of Iceland, that the CO2 is transformed into this sparkling cocktail and injected. several hundred meters deep in the basalt rock.
Carbfix discovered that its mixture of CO2 will chemically react with basalt and turn into rock in just two or three years instead of the centuries that the mineralization process was supposed to take, so it takes the CO2 that Climeworks DAC captures and the pump into the ground through wells protected from the harsh environment by steel igloos that could easily serve as props in a space movie.
It is a permanent solution, unlike planting forests which can release their carbon by rotting, being cut down or burning in a warming planet. Even the CO2 that other companies plan to inject into empty oil and gas fields could eventually escape, some experts fear, but once the carbon turns to rock, it’s not going anywhere.
Orca is touted as the world’s first commercial DAC unit because the 4,000 tonnes of CO2 it can extract each year was paid for by 8,000 people who signed up online to phase out carbon, and by companies like Stripe, Swiss Re, Audi and Microsoft. .
Rock band Coldplay recently joined these companies to pay Climeworks voluntary carbon credits to offset some of their own emissions. The company hopes to someday make a profit by lowering its costs below the selling price of these credits.
The problem is, Orca’s production equates to just three seconds of humanity’s annual CO2 emissions, which are closer to 40 billion metric tons, but Orca has at least shown that the concept of purifying the air and carbon remission underground has gone from science fiction to science.
Tarek Soliman, a London-based climate change analyst at HSBC Global Research, says the Reykjavik launch is not the kind of “quantum leap” that would prove that the technology can reach the scale and cost required to have a real impact on climate change.
“But it is a step in that direction,” said Mr Soliman. “Since direct air capture has been seen by a lot of people as nonsense, it’s something you can see and touch that puts her on the path to credibility.”
Christoph Gebald, co-founder of Climeworks, is adamant that the technology can grow into a trillion dollar industry over the next three or four decades, a goal he believes would be helped if the next COP26 meeting in Glasgow saw most countries commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
“It would be a Glasgow dream outcome, with policymakers recognizing that any approach that leads to net zero must include eliminating carbon as well as reducing emissions,” he said in a telephone interview since. Zurich.
Soft-spoken 38-year-old Dr Gebald started working on the DAC with fellow German Jan Wurzbacher while they were studying mechanical engineering in Switzerland. They formed their company in 2009, but Dr Gebald says their big breakthrough was the release of the UN-led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, spelling out the need to reach zero. net emission by 2050 if global warming were to be kept to a minimum. 1.5 degrees. Importantly, it also produced the first scientific consensus that some emissions would be too difficult to eradicate, so any viable paths to ânet zeroâ would be based on removing some previous emissions.
Dr Gebald believes machine-based solutions may need to support half of that workload, as the potential of most nature-based options is limited by a shortage of arable land.
Going from 4,000 tonnes per year to 5 billion tonnes quickly enough to help limit climate change may sound fanciful, but there is an interesting comparison to the world’s first commercial wind farm, which opened in 1980 on Crotched Mountain. in New Hampshire.
This project consisted of 20 turbines with a combined power of 600,000 watts. Forty years later, in 2020, the world’s installed wind capacity was 1.23 million times greater, at 740 gigawatts.
Increase orcas annual production at the same rate would result in a CO2 removal capacity of 5 billion metric tonnes by around 2060.
“This is exactly what climate science asks us to do to meet climate goals,” said Dr Gebald.
The challenge will be to reduce costs, which Dr. Gebald says are now around $ 600 to $ 800 per metric tonne. The increase in production could bring those costs down to $ 200 to $ 300 per tonne by 2030, and to $ 100 to $ 150 somewhere around 2035, he said.
DAC would already be competitive if it received the grants that have helped electric vehicles and solar panels to scale and thrive, Dr Gebald said. .
A fundamental difference to wind and solar power is that they were ultimately driven by profit, because once the subsidies helped make them competitive, they produced a valuable asset: good electricity. Marlet.
The main DAC ‘outcome’ – helping save the planet – must instead rely on government support such as emission credits and taxes on carbon emitters, hence the importance of meetings such as the Glasgow COP.
As Mr Hitz and his team monitor Orca to perfect their next plant, which will be 10 times the size and expected to launch in two or three years, Dr Gebald has acknowledged that in many ways Orca, which is supposed to run for a decade , has already achieved its goal. âWe know the technology works, so the primary experience with Orca really tested the market’s interest in removing carbon, and we’re very happy that much of the plant’s lifespan capacity has already been contracted. “
Carbfix is ââactively exploring how to adapt its mineralization process to other types of rock and how to use seawater at sites that lack freshwater.
Carbfix was started as a research project in 2007 after being pushed by then Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, to whom a local scientist had told Iceland’s highly porous basalt could mineralize CO2 without create seismic problems.
Dr Grimsson solidified his role as Orca’s ‘fairy godfather’ shortly after ending his 20 years as president in 2016, as he walked through a luxury hotel bar during the meeting. COP this year in Marrakech.
âI happened to hear this American investor sitting at a table loudly stimulating this new Swiss company which he said had the technology to extract carbon directly from the air,â he recalls.
“So I stopped and I said ‘Hey, in Iceland we know how to turn this stuff into rock!'” He put Dr. Gebald with Carbfix “and bingo, that was the missing link.”
Despite this happy accident, Edda Aradottir, Managing Director of Carbfix, says she is not convinced that the latest COP will do enough to help “negative emissions technologies” reach their potential.
“Somehow it seems that these events rarely reach what they intended to do,” she said.
Dr Grimsson, the former president, is also depressed about Glasgow, saying “the problem is that COPs are mainly about finding ways to cut emissions.”
That’s good, he said, but âwe also need to destroy some of the carbon that’s already in the air. If we don’t start doing it very, very quickly, we’ll never be able to tackle climate change. “