Direct air capture is one of the newest tools in the fight against climate change, and it’s growing in popularity.
According to research agencies like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we’re at a point where reducing emissions alone will not stop the harmful sorts of climate change. We also need to clean up our mess, including removing a massive amount of carbon dioxide from the air. Direct air capture is a way to do this, involving fans pulling air through giant filters, and then water washing through those filters carrying the collected carbon dioxide deep into the ground, into porous basalt. There, with time, the carbon dioxide will simply become stone.
The largest plant currently doing this is Climeworks’ Orca plant in Iceland. Set into the foot of the Hellisheiði volcano, the Orca plant captures approximately 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Experts estimate that if we don’t curb current trends in emissions, by 2050 we’ll need 10 billion tons removed annually. Currently, it costs between $500-600 per ton to run direct air capture.
“Effectively, in 30 years’ time, we need a worldwide enterprise that is twice as big as the oil and gas industry, and that works in reverse,” said Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
The Orca plant is adjacent to the Hellisheiði geothermal energy plant, so it runs entirely on renewable, non-polluting energy. Climeworks, the Swiss company that owns Orca, also owns two more direct air capture plants. Their first plant, in Hinwil Switzerland, captures 900 metric tons per year and used to sell the carbon dioxide to companies for making both soda and fertilizer, both of which result in most of that CO2 being returned to the atmosphere.
According to Daniel Egger, chief commercial officer at Climeworks, to achieve their own goals of removing ‘several’ million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030, the company will have to increase tenfold every three years until then.