Air-scrubbing machines gain momentum, but long way to go

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Leading scientific agencies say that even if the world manages to stop harmful emissions, it will not be enough to prevent climate catastrophe.

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NEW YORK — On a field surrounded by lush hills in Iceland, fans attached to metal structures that look like industrial-sized Lego projects are spinning. Their mission is to clear the atmosphere by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it safely underground.

A few years ago, this technique, known as “direct air capture”, was seen by many as an unrealistic fantasy. But the technology has evolved where people see it as a serious tool in fighting climate change.

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Iceland’s plant, called Orca, is the largest such facility in the world, taking in about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. But this amount is very less compared to what the planet needs. Experts say that 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide will have to be removed annually by the middle of the century.

“Effectively, in 30 years’ time, we need a worldwide enterprise that is twice as large as the oil and gas industry and that does the opposite,” said Julio Friedman, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. ” ,

Major scientific agencies, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say that even if the world manages to stop producing harmful emissions, it will still not be enough to avert a climate catastrophe. They say we need to take massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and return it underground – some people call this “negative emissions.”

“We have already failed on climate to the extent that direct air capture is just one of the many things we should be doing,” Friedman said. “We have already emitted so many greenhouse gases at such an incredible amount and rate that massive CO2 removal is needed, as well as reduction in emissions.”

As dire warnings have intensified, the technology to vacuum carbon dioxide from the air has advanced. Currently, a handful of companies operate such plants on a commercial scale, including Climworks, which built the Orca plant in Iceland, and Carbon Engineering, which built a different type of direct air capture plant in British Columbia. And now that the technology is perfected, both companies have big expansion ambitions.

direct air capture at work

At Climworks’ Orca plant near Reykjavik, fans suck air into large, black collection boxes where carbon dioxide collects on a filter. It is then heated by geothermal energy and combined with water and pumped deep underground into basalt rock formations. Within a few years, Climeworks says, the carbon dioxide turns to stone.

It takes energy to build and run Climeworks’ plants. Over the entire life cycle of the Orca plant, including manufacturing, 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted for every 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide removed from the air. Carbon engineering plants can run on renewable energy or natural gas, and when natural gas is used, the carbon dioxide generated during combustion is captured.

Carbon dioxide can also be injected into geological reservoirs such as dwindling oil and gas fields. Carbon Engineering is taking that approach in partnership with Occidental Petroleum, which is expected to be the world’s largest direct air capture facility in the Permian Basin of the southwest—the most productive U.S. oil field.

According to the International Energy Agency, direct air capture plants around the world are removing about 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually.

Climeworks built its first direct air capture plant in 2017 in Hinville, Switzerland, which annually captured 900 metric tons of carbon dioxide that was sold to companies for use in fizzy drinks and fertilizer. The company built another plant called Artik Fox in Iceland that same year; It captured 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that was injected underground.

“Today we are at a level that we can say is on an industrial scale, but it is not at the level where we need to make a difference in preventing climate change,” said Daniel Egger, Chief Commercial Officer of ClimateWorks .

Big Plans, Challenges

His plan calls for scaling up to remove several million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. And Eggers said that would mean a capacity increase of 10 roughly every three years.

This is an lofty, and costly goal.

Estimates vary, but it currently costs $500 to $600 per ton to remove carbon dioxide, said Colin McCormick, chief innovation officer for Carbon Direct, which is the chief innovation officer for carbon removal. invest in projects and advise businesses to purchase such services.

Like any new technology, costs can come down over time. Within the next decade, experts say, the cost of direct air capture could drop to about $200 per ton or less.

Over the years, companies bought carbon offsets by doing things like investing in deforestation projects. But recent studies have shown that many offsets do not deliver the promised environmental benefits. So McCormick said companies are looking for more verifiable carbon removal services and investing directly in air capture, which is considered the “gold standard.”

“It’s really exploding. We really saw hardly any of this until a few years ago,” he said, referring to companies investing in the technology. “Two years ago Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify were really like this. But it was the pioneers who went out first and said, ‘We want to buy carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.'”

Companies are setting a net zero carbon emissions target for their operations but can only reduce emissions so far. That’s where buying carbon removal services like Direct Air Capture comes in.

Individuals can also purchase environment-scrubbing services: Climeworks offers subscriptions starting at $8 per month to those who wish to offset emissions.

In the US, direct air capture facilities may receive a tax credit of $50 per ton, but there are efforts in Congress to increase this to $180 per ton, which, if passed, could encourage growth.

The Energy Department on Friday announced a goal of reducing carbon removal and storage costs by $100 per metric ton, saying it would collaborate with communities, industry and academia to foster technological innovation.

Oil companies like Occidental and Exxon have been practicing a different form of carbon capture for decades. For the most part, they are taking carbon dioxide emissions from production facilities and injecting it underground to loosen excess oil and gas from between rocks.

Some question the environmental benefits of using captured CO2 to produce more fossil fuels that are eventually burned, producing greenhouse gases. But Occidental says part of the goal is to create products like aviation fuel with a smaller carbon footprint — because while producing the fuel, they’re also removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground.

Capturing carbon dioxide from oil and gas operations or industrial facilities such as steel plants or coal-burning power plants is technically easier and less expensive than pulling it from the air, because plant emissions contain much more concentrated CO2.

Still, most companies are not capturing the carbon dioxide that leaves their facilities.

According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide, the capacity of industrial facilities to capture carbon dioxide from their operations was 40 million tons annually, a triple that in 2010.

But this is less than 1% of the total emissions that could be derived from industrial facilities globally, said Sean McCoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary.

If governments enacted policies to penalize carbon dioxide emissions, it would drive more carbon removal projects and prompt companies to switch to lower-carbon fuels, McCoy said.

“Direct air capture is something you guys have to pay for because they want it,” he said. “Anyone who operates a power plant wants (carbon capture and storage). You have to hit them with sticks.”


Associated Press reporter Jamie Keaton from Geneva contributed.


Follow Kathy Bussewitz on Twitter: @cbussewitz


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