Alongside the widespread focus on the decarbonisation of industry sits the carbon removal project, whereby existing carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured from the air and stored underground.   

In September, Swiss start-up Climeworks launched its Orca project in Iceland, the world’s first large-scale direct air capture (DAC) plant, slated to capture 4000 tonnes of CO2 a year and powered by geothermal energy. 

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The captured carbon is then injected into basalt and stored under the earth in a neighbouring plant operated by local Icelandic company Carbfix. 

A quarter of the cake

Co-founder and co-CEO Jan Wurzbacher tells fDi that Climeworks’ aim is to target historic and unavoidable emissions, but insists that such a project only represents “one quarter of the decarbonisation cake”. The other three quarters are taken up by the reduction of fossil fuels and their sustainable replacements.  

Founded by Mr Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald, both of whom studied mechanical engineering at ETH Zurich, Climeworks has completed a total of five financing rounds with mostly European private investors. To date, it has raised a total of $160m and boasts 170 employees, an office in Cologne and subsidiaries in Iceland and Norway. 

“Many corporates have set themselves very ambitious net-zero or carbon-negative targets and of course they can do a certain amount of reduction but on top of that, they need to remove CO2,” says Mr Wurzbacher, counting Microsoft, Shopify and Swiss Re among Climeworks’ clients. 

At Orca, 40-feet-long machines, called CO2 collectors, draw air inside only then to trap it and separate out the carbon dioxide through filter materials called sorbents. After two hours, the containers are shuttered and warmed up in order to release the CO2 from the sorbent, at which point the carbon dioxide is then mixed with water and pumped underground to be stored in basalt rock at Carbfix’s facility.

What are our options?

A nominal capacity of 4000 tonnes is a drop in the ocean compared with the 85 megatonnes of DAC needed globally by 2030 to reach net-zero by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Removing a tonne of carbon using Climeworks’ technology is also expensive, estimated at roughly $600 per tonne. 

Faced with the criticism over the cost and energy intensity of this technology, Mr Wurzbacher asks: “What are our options? Climate science tells us we need to remove 10 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year by mid-century if we want to honour the Paris Agreement.” Short of planting trees, we need to remove carbon from the air at scale, he says.

The next project following Orca will be 10 times larger, he says, with further details and its location set to be released in the coming months.

Government policies

Mr Wurzbacher adds that in order to scale up in the way that Climeworks envisions and reduce costs, there is no denying that government policies, akin to the feed-in-tariffs used for renewables, are ultimately needed to reach gigaton scale.

At the same time, as the technology evolves and assets are brought online, Mr Wurzbacher is confident that the DAC process will become less energy-intensive.     

“We need energy to capture CO2 from the air but I expect there will be better sorbent materials with a higher CO2 capacity, and we can fine-tune the design to have less resistance to the air,” he says. 

Speaking generally, Mr Wurzbacher remains encouraged by what can be done in DAC on a broader timescale.

“I hope that we’ll see really concrete results in the next few years,” he says. “As humans, it’s always hard to foresee exponential developments, which is why you say you typically overestimate what you can do in a year but underestimate what you can do in 10.”

This article was first published in the December 2021/January 2022 edition of fDi Intelligence magazine. Read the online edition here.