On Wednesday, June 29, the Swiss climate tech startup, Climeworks, aims to begin construction on what the company says could become the world’s largest plant to capture carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it underground.
In 2017, the Climeworks AG facility set up near Zurich, Switzerland became the first commercial plant for capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air. In 2021, the company began operations on another venture, “the world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) and CO₂ storage plant:” the Orca.
Now in 2022, the company’s latest project evokes an even bigger animal. Named after the larger-than-life Mammoth, Climeworks’s newest plant will suck 36,000 metric tons of C02 out of Icelandic air a year, allowing Iceland to “emerge as an unlikely superpower” in the worldwide fight against climate change.
While 36,000 metric tons may seem to barely put a dent in 36 billion metric tons of energy-related C02 emissions released into the atmosphere last year, that is ten-fold the amount of direct air captured from Climework’s existing DAC plant, the Orca, currently the world’s largest.
The Orca plant has the capacity to remove 4,000 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere a year, comparable to plucking 850 cars from the roadways each year. While the argument that DAC plants like this do little to mitigate the Earth’s rising temperatures are prevalent, the demand for DAC projects remains high.
The IPCC, International Energy Agency (IEA), the European Union, and the U.S. Department of Energy are hopeful about the technology. The IEA forecasts DAC could remove 85 metric megatons of CO2—equivalent to more than 21,000 Orca installations—out of the atmosphere by the end of the decade, according to a report in Fortune.
The IPCC has said energy-intensive and costly technologies like DAC will be needed to remove CO2 on a large scale in the coming decades, to limit global warming to 1.5C and avoid increasingly severe climate impacts. Last month, the Biden administration launched a $3.5 billion program to capture carbon pollution from the air and set up DAC hubs around the country.
Investors also see the hope in direct air capture.
Mammoth was partly financed by a $650 million funding round Climeworks announced in April. The startup is valued at more than $1 billion with blue-chip funders such as John Doerr, M&G, Swiss Re, BigPoint Holding, and J.P. Morgan Securities. Moreover, the company sells some of the most expensive carbon removal credits in the world, costing up to 1,000 euros per metric ton, with buyers including companies like Microsoft (an early adapter), Audi, and Boston Consulting Group.
Climeworks’s buyers believe in its mission. Jens Burchardt of BCG told The Guardian: “We think it’s something that the world undoubtedly needs to get to net-zero and we are one of not-so-many companies in the world who can afford to give this a push at a time when its economics are not yet where they need to be.”
"It's the cost of scaling up," Climeworks Co-CEO Christoph Gebald said in a quote to Reuters on the pricey credits. "This is, so to say, the investment we have to do as a company to move forward."
On Tuesday, the company announced it had broken ground for the Mammoth, and said that at this momentum, it is on track to scale up rapidly in the coming years. Climeworks sees the possibility of “multi-megaton capacity [facilities] by 2030, [and it’s] on track to deliver gigaton capacity by 2050,” the company says.
So how will it work? The Mammoth plant will contain 80 large blocks of giant fans and filters that suck in the air and extract the CO2. These fans execute this by passing air over a solid material that absorbs C02. When the material is saturated in the gas, it is heated at a blazing 212 degrees Fahrenheit and releases a stream of pure, bonafide C02.
This CO2 is then injected underground after Climework’s partner company, Carbfix, an Iceland-based carbon storage firm mixes it with water. Underground, the diluted gas will solidify into rock over the course of 2 years.
One big concern of mass DAC deployment is the amount of energy the process takes. Climeworks addresses this by powering the Orca plant in Iceland via renewable geothermal energy. The Mammoth project will be powered in the same way, by a nearby geothermal energy plant.
As more and more businesses buy offsets to claim carbon neutrality, via schemes such as those that claim to protect forests, plant trees, or install renewable energy, Gebald argues, by contrast, DAC with underground burial offers immediate, permanent, and easily measurable CO2 disposal.
However, the DAC industry is not without criticism. Climate campaigners such as Greenpeace have argued that DAC could be a distraction, due to the uncertainty associated with the process, extortionate price, and the urgency of the climate dilemma.
“We simply can’t wait until tech like DAC is finally affordable or widely available if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change,” Charlie Kronick, senior climate adviser at Greenpeace UK said in a quote from The Guardian. “If overhyping DAC encourages delay and dithering on the necessary action to cut emissions then it will make the situation worse, not better.”
Greenpeace also reasons that DAC does not reduce our existing reliance on fossil fuels. “We should really focus on transitioning the economy to clean solutions such as renewables and efficiency, rather than spending money on technology that keeps us locked into the fossil fuel era,” Sebastian Mang, climate policy advisor at Greenpeace European Unit, told Euronews Living.
Others argue that DAC is worth implementing while bearing in mind its small-scale impact. Professor Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University and author of The New Climate War, told The Guardian: “Of all of the geoengineering schemes, DAC seems the safest and most efficacious. It could, along with natural reforestation, be an important component of broader efforts to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, a strategy that arguably belongs in any comprehensive climate abatement program. But since we’re only talking about capturing 10%, at most, of current carbon emissions, this obviously cannot be a primary strategy for cutting emissions.”
In order for DAC to make a large difference in comprehensive carbon emissions, it must be scaled up briskly, ad additional costly measures. With Climework’s backing, it might just have the funds to do so. “We are very confident we can achieve million-tonne [per year] capacity in the second half of this decade, and billion-tonne capacity by 2050,” Gebald told The Guardian.
The world currently has 18 direct air capture facilities. Between them, there is a race underway to see which firm can build the largest. According to the International Energy Agency.
U.S. oil firm Occidental also plans to launch a large-scale DAC facility, in late-2024, to collect 1 million tonnes per year of CO2. A part of the Cananda-based company, Carbon Engineering, it is planned to be an even bigger facility. One will be built in Scotland, and the other in fracking country, Texas’s Permian Basin.
As reported by Fortune, when completed in 2024, the Permian plant is projected to suck a Texas-size 500,000 to 1 million tons of CO2 out of the sky annually. For the Scottish project, Carbon Engineering will team up with Storegga, another startup trying to crack the DAC market. That one is due to be operational in 2026 with a capacity of up to 1 million tons.
“The industry needs to find a way to rapidly grow many thousands of times larger, and cut costs by about 80% if they are going to have a real hope of making a tangible impact in the fight against global warming,” Robert Rohde told The Guardian. “DAC would be an amazing weapon in the fight against climate change. However, it remains very small-scale and high cost. Current global capacity for DAC is about 12,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. Each year, human activities release 40bn tonnes. So, right now, Dac is like trying to bail out the Titanic using an eyedropper.”
“It will be great if they can make it work, but I am not optimistic, and most of the world’s attention should be focused on reducing emissions because we don’t have time to wait,” Rhode said.
Climeworks is on its third carbon capture project, with plans to set up facilities across Europe. Other companies, such as U.S. firm CarbonCapture, and California-based AirCapture to name a few, are dashing to create even bigger plants in other parts of the world. While their methods may vary, the common goal is to extract carbon directly from the air.
Could large-scale DAC play an integral role in saving our planet? Or is it throwing money into a small-scale payoff for a mammoth-sized problem?
Adrian Corless, CEO at CarbonCapture, points out to The Guardian that many trillions of dollars have been invested in oil and gas infrastructure, the source of much of the climate crisis. “I don’t think it should scare or surprise anyone that to solve the climate problem it will need an industry on the scale of the oil and gas industry,” Corless said.