Biggest “Direct Air Capture” Plant Starts Pulling in Carbon, But Involves a Fraction of the Gas in the Atmosphere

Even a planned facility 10 times larger would have almost no impact on the 33 billion tons of carbon to be emitted this year.

Climeworks' CO2 collector is located in the exhibition rooms of the Zukunftsmuseum, the branch of the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Credit: Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images

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The start-up behind the world’s biggest direct carbon capture plant said it would build a much larger facility in the next few years that would permanently remove millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As Zurich-based Climeworks opened its Orca “direct air capture” project in Iceland on Wednesday, co-chief executive Jan Wurzbacher told the Financial Times it had started design work on a facility 10 times larger that would be completed in the next few years.

Orca will collect about 4,000 tons of CO2 a year and store it underground—a tiny fraction of the 33 billion tons of the gas forecast by the International Energy Agency to be emitted worldwide this year, but a demonstration of the technology’s viability.

“This is the first time we are extracting CO2 from the air commercially and combining it with underground storage,” Wurzbacher said.

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The Orca plant sells the most expensive carbon offset in the world, costing as much as almost $1,400 a ton of CO2 removed and counting Microsoft founder Bill Gates among its customers.

Wurzbacher said commercial demand had been so high that the plant was nearly sold out of credits for its entire 12-year lifespan, prompting the accelerated development of the much larger plant using the same technology.

Orca’s other customers include Swiss Re, which recently signed a $10 million carbon removal deal with the plant, as well as Audi and Shopify.

Some energy models show the world will need to be removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere a year by the middle of the century to meet net zero emissions targets.

Critics of direct air capture say the technology is too expensive and consumes too much energy to operate at a meaningful scale. 

But its profile has been rising, with President Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure bill including $3.5 billion for four direct air capture hubs. 

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Climeworks’ rival Carbon Engineering, a start-up based near Vancouver, is developing a plant in Texas with Occidental Petroleum that aims to extract up to 1 million tons of CO2 a year. 

Because the atmosphere is just 0.04 percent carbon dioxide, extracting it can be time-consuming and energy intensive.

Wurzbacher said the Orca plant, which is powered by geothermal energy, was more efficient and used fewer materials than Climeworks’ earlier technology—“it is really the next step up.”

Orca uses dozens of large fans to pull in air, which is passed through a collector where the CO2 binds with other molecules. The binding substance is then heated, which releases the carbon dioxide gas.

To mark Wednesday’s opening, a tank full of carbon dioxide collected from the air was injected underground, where it will mix with water and eventually turn into rock as it reacts with a basalt formation, locking away the carbon.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

Used with permission.