The first large-scale carbon capture facility is now online. But will it make a difference?

The Swiss company Climeworks activated its first major carbon capture facility in southwest Iceland in early September 2021. The facility, known as "Orca", runs entirely on geothermal energy, and essentially sucks CO2 directly out of the air and shoves it underground, trapping it in basalt rock formations about three kilometers away. As The Verge explains:

The fans suck in air. The air passes over a special solid sorbent filter that traps the carbon dioxide. Climeworks wouldn't get into too much detail about how its filters work in an interview with The Verge, other than saying that it uses a base to attract CO2, which is mildly acidic. When the filter is fully saturated, it's time for step two in the process. The unit heats up the filter to about 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), which releases the trapped carbon dioxide.

Once the CO2 has been separated out of the air, it heads through pipes to an adjacent building where it can be prepped to be permanently stored. Here, it's mixed with a lot of water — about 27 tons of water for every ton of carbon dioxide. That slurry then travels just a few hundred meters (about a quarter of a mile) away before it is injected deep into the ground. The carbonated water reacts with basaltic rock, creating carbonate minerals. Over the course of two years, what was once a kind of sparkling water becomes solid rock.

According to the Financial Post, Climeworks' Orca facility has the capability to capture around 4,000 tons of CO2 this way — which is about the equivalent of the annual emissions of 250 US residents, which in turn equates to about 1 percent of annual global CO2 emissions. That's better than nothing, right?

Well, as Andrea James explained right here on this very website on year ago:

Doing carbon capture utilization storage at a scale that would make a difference will take a lot of time and money, so as a species, we would need to commit to retrofitting carbon-emitting energy plants. Those plants need to run until suitable replacements are built, but they are responsible for the overwhelming amount of CO2 emissions.

The solution at the Orca facility — creating these new "rocks" out of the CO2 and shoving them underground — is probably preferable to some alternative ideas, such as storing it for the oil industry to draw up again later. But according to Strelka Magazine, we would need to capture about 140,000 pyramids worth of CO2 to make a difference.

Cost-wise, The Verge adds this:

Microsoft, which pledged last year to capture all of its historical emissions by 2050, is both an investor and a customer of Climeworks. Microsoft and other companies can purchase captured CO2 from Climeworks for around $600 a ton, offsetting a ton of their own pollution in the process. In its 2020 fiscal year alone, Microsoft was responsible for the equivalent of 11,164,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by $600, and Microsoft would face a bill of nearly $6.7 billion for just one year's worth of pollution.

Which the Bloomberg translates back into:

Climeworks aims to get that cost down to US$200 to US$300 a ton by 2030, and to US$100 to US$200 by the middle of next decade, when its operations are at full scale, Wurzbacher said. With European carbon prices at 62 euros (US$73) a ton and many betting it will go above US$100 soon, the lower end of Climeworks's target price would make it cheaper for polluters to use Climeworks than pay the penalty.

So I mean. I guess it's better than nothing?

How the largest direct air capture plant will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere [Justine Calma / The Verge]

World's largest carbon-capture plant Orca opens in Iceland [Rima Sabina Aouf / Dezeen]

World's largest carbon-capture plant by Climeworks starts making tiny dent in emissions [Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir and Akshat Rathi / Bloomberg]

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