We visited the world’s largest carbon capture plant, which just signed a 10-year contract with Microsoft – GeekWire

Climeworks, a leader in capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air, has facilities next to a large geothermal power plant outside the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The Orca facility is on the far right and the new Mammoth facility will be on the left across the road. The pipes carry geothermal hot water. Climeworks relies on clean geothermal energy for its operations. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — A short drive from the Icelandic capital, on a lava plateau covered in moss and grass, the land exudes plumes of steam. In most places in the world, rocky landscapes have largely fixed and inert features. On this volcanic island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, the planet is visibly geologically alive.

Startup Climeworks and its partners are taking advantage of Iceland’s dynamic geology to capture and mineralize carbon dioxide, a key pollutant that fuels climate change.

On Wednesday, the company announced a 10-year deal with Microsoft to offset 10,000 tonnes of CO from the software giant.2 emissions. Microsoft, which has pledged to go carbon negative by 2030, last year invested in Climeworks through its $1 billion climate innovation fund and made a first offset purchase. This is Microsoft’s first long-term agreement with a technology company for the elimination of carbon.

Climeworks is a world leader in the field. In 2017, it was the first company to launch a commercial carbon capture operation, based in its home country of Switzerland. In September 2021, Climeworks began operating its largest Orca facility near Reykjavik, with the capacity to extract 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year and pump it underground where it permanently binds to basalt rock formations.

Exterior signage at the Climeworks Orca factory. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

During a recent GeekWire visit to the Climeworks facility, excavators and other heavy equipment began preparing a nearby site where the company is building a second, larger factory in Iceland. Named Mammoth, it is designed to capture 36,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually when completed in 2024.

Financial backing like the Microsoft-signed deal is essential, many say, to help the carbon capture industry get established.

“Our experience in purchasing renewable energy shows that long-term agreements can be a critical foundation for society’s race to scale new decarbonization technologies,” said Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer. from Microsoft, in a statement announcing the agreement. The companies did not disclose the cost of the new offsets.

The agreement “can help kick-start commercial and technical progress in a nascent but crucial industry for achieving IPCC goals”, he added, referring to the United Nations organization that guides the global response to the climate crisis.

Climeworks’ Orca facility in Iceland was built to capture 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year using eight cargo container-style units stacked two high. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

400 marbles in a million

Climeworks’ technology is Direct Air Capture (DAC), meaning it pulls CO2 directly from the air, as opposed to efforts to suck in the gas generated by coal-fired power plants, for example, where it is more concentrated.

With carbon dioxide levels around 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, DAC is equivalent to extracting 400 carbon balls from a million balls, said David Heldebrant, green chemist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). .

“Climeworks is doing a really good job,” he said, “given what they’re up against.”

“Climeworks is doing a very good job considering what they’re up against.”

Orca is a compact operation, covering less than 20,000 square feet in a treeless, windswept landscape. It features a modular design of eight cargo container-style compartments, stacked two high. Each container is divided into six smaller compartments, each with two fans, which draw in outside air that passes through amine-based chemical filters that capture CO2.

After about two hours the filter is full and a panel closes the smaller compartment. The enclosed space is heated for 30 minutes causing the filter to release the concentrated CO2 in the form of gas.

At Orca, Climeworks partners with an Icelandic company called Carbfix that mixes the gas with water and then pumps it underground into basalt beds. Over a two-year period, almost all of the carbon binds to the basalt where it remains trapped indefinitely. Climeworks is also looking for alternative solutions for CO2including carbon neutral fuels and materials.

The company chose Iceland for its operations for several reasons. For one thing, almost all of the country’s electricity is clean, coming either from geothermal power or from hydroelectric dams. Climeworks is adjacent to the Hellisheiði geothermal power station. For two, Carbfix already had some of the infrastructure in place to pump the carbon underground, and there is plenty of basalt available to bind it.

Fans draw air through filters at the Climeworks facility in Iceland. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

Capturing carbon in Iceland

When GeekWire visited Climeworks in early July, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing at 22 miles per hour. In winter, it blows twice as hard and gusts up to over 60 miles per hour. Temperatures fluctuate between 30 and 40 years. Although Iceland has many positive attributes for carbon capture facilities, weather is not necessarily one of them.

Part of Orca has been offline this summer while Climeworks workers tune the devices and evaluate their performance during the first half of operation.

“With Orca, we’ve added real-world business operations to ongoing R&D efforts,” said spokeswoman Bryndis Nielsen.

The company has not disclosed how much carbon has been captured since the fans turned on in September, or how much electricity the plant has used.

Heldebrant said the same is true for commercial carbon capture ventures.

“They all have black box technologies,” he said. For outside observers, “it’s hard to comment on science, economics, or cost.”

In June 2022, Climeworks inaugurated its Mammoth factory near Reykjavik. Construction is expected to take 18 to 24 months. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

One thing is certain: companies have not yet reduced the global carbon debt.

While Mammoth will capture nine times the amount of CO2 that Orca attracts is a tiny amount on a global scale. The annual carbon emission rate per person in Seattle, for example, is about 4.3 tons. So, with a system with a capacity of 36,000 tonnes, you would need 82 Mammoth plants to remove emissions from a city’s residents.

The outsized scale of the problem has led some critics to argue that the DAC isn’t worth it, it’s way too expensive, and the focus should remain on reducing emissions in the first place.

Many experts, however, say both actions are necessary. The IPCC concludes that between 3 and 12 billion tonnes of carbon will need to be removed per year by mid-century to combat worst-case climate scenarios. Natural processes such as photosynthesis, uptake by the oceans, and chemical reactions with rocks that mineralize carbon will help, but not be enough.

In the Myvatn region of northeast Iceland, the geothermal processes that provide clean energy to the Climeworks project are even more apparent in bubbling, steaming and sulfuric pools. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

Climeworks has raised more than $800 million from investors, according to PitchBook, and it has huge ambitions to scale its technology. It aims to achieve a multi-million ton capacity by 2030 and a billion ton capacity by 2050. If these goals could be achieved, they could make a difference.

And fortunately, Climeworks is not alone in its pursuit of carbon capture.

Funding and innovation are ramping up

Some 48 companies worldwide are tackling carbon elimination, PitchBook reports, and they’ve raised nearly $5.8 billion in venture capital.

In addition to Microsoft’s new deal, support for eliminating carbon in the Pacific Northwest includes investments from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, led by Bill Gates, which has so far backed four companies in the sector: Mission Zero, based in the UK; San Francisco’s Legacy; Verdox in Massachusetts; and Sustaera in North Carolina.

Major carbon removal companies headquartered in the region include Carbon Engineering and Svante, both based in British Columbia. The PNNL is working on a decarbonation technology coupled with industrial processes.

Climeworks’ Orca installation started operating in September 2021. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

More broadly, a group of companies including Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey and others created the $925 million Frontier Fund in April to be spent on eliminating carbon by 2030. In May, a group of companies including Climeworks plus nonprofits, universities and philanthropies have formed a Direct Air Capture Coalition to support the field.

The US government has launched numerous initiatives to remove atmospheric carbon, including $3.5 billion for direct air capture centers.

Urgent action is needed, advocates said.

“When we look at the carbon removal market, we have a huge problem with scale. We just need to scale. We need more volume in the markets,” Microsoft’s Joppa said during the talk. a recent carbon removal conference.

“We have to start going today,” he added. “We can’t sit down.”

Riders on Icelandic horses traverse lava fields in an area that is home to Climeworks and the Hellisheiði geothermal power station. Geothermal steam vents in the background. (GeekWire Photo/Brent Roraback)

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