Direct air capture to combat climate change

In a field surrounded by forested hills in Iceland, fans attached to metal structures that look like industrial-size Lego projects do their job. Its mission is to clean the atmosphere by trapping carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in safe places underground.

A few years ago, this technology, known as “direct air capture”, was considered an unrealizable fantasy. But technology has advanced to such a point that this method now looms as an important tool in the fight against climate change.

The Icelandic facility, called Orca, is the largest of its kind in the world. It traps about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Compared to what the planet needs, however, that is a minimal amount. Experts say that it would be necessary to capture 10 billion tons annually by the middle of the century.

“Indeed, in 30 years we will need an industry that should be twice that of oil and gas, that works in reverse,” said Julio Friedmann, a researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Leading scientific bodies, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say that even if harmful emissions stop, that won’t be enough to prevent a climate catastrophe. They claim that it is vital to extract huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it underground, so that it generates what some call “negative emissions.”

“We have failed to control the climate to such a degree that direct air capture is one of several things we must do,” Friedmann said. “We have already emitted so many greenhouse gases that large-scale CO2 removal is required, in addition to reducing emissions.”

The technology for capturing carbon dioxide from the air has come a long way. There are already a handful of companies working in that field, including Climeworks, which built the Orca plant in Iceland, and Carbon Enineering, which built a different plant in British Columbia.

HOW DIRECT AIR CAPTURE WORKS

In Orca, near Reykjavik, extractors trap air in black boxes, in which carbon dioxide is captured by a filter. It is then heated with geothermal energy, combined with water, and pumped into underground basalt rock formations. In a few years, Climeworks says, the carbon dioxide turns into stones.

It takes a lot of energy to build and run Climeworks plants. The Orca plant emits 10 tons of carbon dioxide for every 100 tons it extracts.

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Carbon Engineering plants, meanwhile, can run on renewable energy or natural gas. When natural gas is used, the carbon dioxide generated by combustion is captured.

Carbon dioxide can also be injected into geological deposits. Carbon Engineering is betting on that formula and, in partnership with Occidental Petroleum, they are building what is expected to be the world’s largest direct air capture facility in the Permian Basin of the southwestern United States, the most productive oil field in the United States. .

Direct air capture plants are extracting some 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the International Energy Agency.

“You can say that we are already managing at an industrial level, but not at the level we need to help contain climate change,” said Daniel Egger, Climeworks commercial director.

BIG PLANS, AND CHALLENGES

The idea is to extract several million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. In order to do this, the extraction capacity would have to be multiplied by ten every three years.

It is an ambitious and expensive goal.

Estimates vary, but it currently costs between $ 500 and $ 600 to remove a ton of carbon dioxide through direct air capture, according to Colin McCormick, director of innovations at Carbon Direct, which invests in carbon capture projects.

As with all new technology, costs will drop over time. Experts estimate that 10 years from now, carbon dioxide capture will cost $ 200 a ton, if not less.

The methods used so far to capture carbon, including reforestation projects, are not yielding the expected results and many people are looking for other alternatives, starting with direct air capture.

“There is enormous interest. It’s something we didn’t see coming until a couple of years ago, ”McCormick said.

Companies want to generate a net zero in emissions, but for now all they do is reduce them, not eliminate them. For this reason, the capture of carbon dioxide that reaches the air is important.

Direct air capture is not just for large companies. Anyone, even individuals, will be able to access that service. Climeworks offers subscriptions starting at $ 8 a month for anyone who wants to offset their emissions.

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