How to Suck Carbon and Convert it to Rocks

The Orca carbon-capture plant, just outside Reykjavik in Iceland, has switched on its fans and began sucking carbon dioxide from the air since September 2021. The sound was subtle—a bit like a gurgling stream. But the plant’s creators hope it will mark a big shift in humanity’s interaction with the climate. Orca is, for now, the largest installation in the infant “direct air capture” industry, which aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. When sealed underground such CO2 counts as “negative emissions”—an essential but underdeveloped method for tackling global warming.

Thus, the full operation extracts CO2 from air and turns it to rock. Trials have shown that Icelandic basalts can sequester CO2 in solid rock within two years. Power comes from a nearby geothermal power station….One catch is volume. Orca will capture 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, out of around 35bn tonnes produced by burning fossil fuels. Another is cost. It costs Orca somewhere between $600-800 to sequester one tonne of carbon dioxide, and the firm sells offset packages online for around $1,200 per tonne. The company thinks it can cut costs ten-fold through economies of scale. But there appears to be no shortage of customers willing to pay the current, elevated price. Even as Orca’s fans revved up, roughly two-thirds of its lifetime offering of carbon removals had already been sold. Clients include corporations seeking to offset a portion of their emissions, such as Microsoft, Swiss Re as well as over 8,000 private individuals.

Climeworks is not alone in having spotted the opportunity. Using different chemistry, Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is gearing up to switch on its own carbon-scrubbing facilities. It will take more than these pioneer engineers and financiers to build a gigatonne-sized industry. But the fans are turning. 

Excerpts from Removing carbon dioxide from the air: The world’s biggest carbon-removal plant switches on, Economist, Sept. 18, 2021

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