This is huge good news. Two Swiss engineers who want to save the glaciers in their glorious Alps have figured out how to reverse climate change by mining the existing carbon in our air. This matters, because just reducing our emissions is not going to be enough to stop our climate changing. We also need to remove a lot of the carbon that we’ve already put into our air – and Climeworks is showing us how to do it, and we can all help.
“We capture CO2 from the atmosphere,” Christoph Beuttler, head of climate policy at Climeworks told de zeen this summer. “We’re mining the sky because there’s too much carbon in it. And it’s a sustainable resource.” Not only is it a solution to a problem – it’s about to become a new industry as we reshape our economy so it is sustainable and not destructive.
On September 8th, Climeworks will unveil “Orca”, its new direct air capture and storage plant in Iceland which will combine Climeworks’ direct air capture technology with underground storage of carbon dioxide provided by the Icelandic firm Carbfix. In essence, it is turning the captured carbon back into rock.
Orca will capture 4000 tons of CO₂ per year – making it the world’s biggest climate-positive facility to date, says Climeworks. It is one of the two options for the carbon dioxide captured directly from the air – it can then either be recycled and used as a raw material, or completely removed from the air by safely storing it back in the earth, as Carbfix is doing.
“A climate-positive world requires us to reduce, reuse, recycle… then remove. We can remove unavoidable and historic CO₂ from the air in a safe and permanent way,” says Climeworks.
Storing the captured carbon underground is one of those ways – there are also natural options like afforestation and biomass to sequester carbon in trees and soil. Scientists think that globally, we can store between five and 30 trillion tons. But direct air capture is unique because it has the smallest land and water usage of all carbon dioxide removal approaches – and it also provides a sustainable source of carbon dioxide that can be used to produce renewable, carbon-neutral fuels and materials.
The Climeworks story starts almost two decades ago when the co-founders met on their first day of university at ETH Zurich. They shared a passion for alpine sports and spent a lot of time in the Swiss Alps where they saw the effects of climate change first hand and vowed to create a solution that would empower many people to act. During their studies, they researched how to capture carbon dioxide from the air, continued as entrepreneurs and founded Climeworks in 2009.
In 2017, Climeworks commissioned the world’s first commercial-scale direct air capture plant, selling the captured VO2 for use in fertilizers, fizzy drinks, and synthetic fuels, and the next year, raised USD 30.8 million to commercialize its technology. In 2019, it launched its first carbon dioxide removal service for everyone, and in 2020, it raised USD 110 million in funding to expand its capacities. It was the largest ever private investment in direct air capture.
There is another company working in direct air capture, a Canadian company based in Squamish, BC, in which Bill Gates has invested, but as far as I can figure out from listening to those who understand this better than I do, they are not permanently removing carbon from the atmosphere.
One of the questions bruited back in 2019, when the New York Times reported on Climeworks and its direct air capture technology, was about the economics of this process. How would it make money beyond selling the clean carbon to soft drink companies and greenhouses? Who would pay to put the carbon back in the ground?
When Climeworks began talking to people about its technology, they initially ran into skepticism about whether their technology would work. Then, when they proved it would work, they faced questions about who was going to pay for putting carbon in the ground because it wasn’t a product that could be sold and the process is still expensive.
This is a question that’s been floating around for a while – essentially, can we make money from saving our climate? It’s led to ideas such as tangibly recognizing the value of ecosystem services, like trees and mangroves which sequester carbon and protect our coasts, and then recognizing that communities can build sustainable economies around this.
In terms of direct air capture, it seems like the biggest economic question is about the value of turning carbon back into rock, because both companies working on this see a market for the clean carbon captured from the air.
This is how the New York Times put it: “Air-captured CO₂ can be combined with hydrogen and then fashioned into any kind of fossil-fuel substitute you want. Instead of making bread from air, you can make fuels from air. Already, Climeworks and another company, Carbon Engineering, which is based in British Columbia, have moved aggressively on this idea; the Canadians have even lined up investors (including Bill Gates) to produce synthetic fuel at large industrial plants from air-captured CO₂.”
And Just Have a Think, which I like because it explains new developments clearly and in as unbiased a way as seems possible these days, seemed to think only direct government investment would fund this permanent carbon sequestration.
But what fascinates me is that Climeworks has moved beyond this capitalist-driven question, in part because they have recognized that a lot of us want to help save our climate and are willing to put our wallets where our money is. You can see it starting to emerge in that 2019 New York Times story.
It is a Society 3.0 way, in fact. They offer subscriptions to any and all – you can sign up to remove carbon permanently, rather in the way you can ‘pay’ for the carbon emissions from your airplane flights. And it seems to be an idea that actually came from all of us. Back in 2019, the New York Times reporter asked Climework’s business development manager “if he could bury in Iceland my emissions from my plane flight from the United States to Zurich”. Here is how he describes what came next:
“The price was running about $600 a metric ton, meaning my flight would cost about an extra $700. But I was hardly the first person to ask him. The weekend before… he received 900 unsolicited inquiries by email. Many were from potential customers who wanted to know how soon Climeworks could bury their CO₂ emissions, or how much a machine might cost them. I had the sense I was getting a glimpse of what’s to come: A community of people — not large enough to make a difference, but nonetheless motivated — seemed ready to pay a premium to reverse their CO₂ emissions.”
“Later, Wurzbacher told me he wants to offer a “one click” consumer service, perhaps in a year or two, which would expand what they’re doing in Iceland to individual customers and businesses. A Climeworks app could be installed on my smartphone, he explained. It could then be activated by my handset’s location services. “You fly over here to Europe,” he explained, “and the app tells you that you have just burned 1.7 tons of CO₂. Do you want to remove that? Well, Climeworks can remove it for you. Click here. We’ll charge your credit card. And then you’ll get a stone made from CO₂ for every ton you sequester.” He sat back and sighed. “That would be my dream,” he said.”
Okay, so how do they do this?
“Our machines consist of modular CO₂ collectors that can be stacked to build machines of any size. Climeworks direct air capture machines are powered solely by renewable energy or energy-from-waste. Grey emissions are below 10%, which means that out of 100 tons of carbon dioxide that our machines capture from the air, at least 90 tons are permanently removed and only up to 10 tons are re-emitted.”
Air is drawn into the collector via a fan. Carbon dioxide is captured on the surface of a highly selective filter material that sits inside the collectors. After the filter material is full, the collector is closed and the temperature is raised to between 80 and 100 °C so it releases the carbon dioxide and allows it to be collected in high-purity, high-concentration form – liquid CO2.
After Climeworks removes the carbon dioxide from the air, Carbfix mixes it with water and pumps it deep underground where it reacts with basalt rock and turns into stone in a few years through natural mineralization, permanently removing it from the air permanently and safely. Carbfix is one of the world experts in rapid underground mineralization of carbon dioxide. Its process centres around the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, which provides the renewable energy to run the Climeworks machines.
But turning the captured clean carbon back into rock is only one option. It can also be used to make everything from fuels to plastics.”Carbon is the most valuable resource in our society,” Beuttler explained. “We have built our society on carbon. The problem is that it’s coming out of the ground and it adds additional carbon to the atmosphere.”
“So we capture CO2 from the atmosphere to do two things,” he explained to De Zeen, which has a particular interest in design and construction. “To store it away permanently to achieve negative emissions and to make products from CO2 so you can replace fossil CO2.”
“You can build polymers, you can build oils; anything you can get from oil and gas, you can build with that process. Materials made from atmospheric carbon could be transformative for the construction and built environment sector, which together are responsible for an estimated 40% of global emissions.
Cement contributes about eight per cent of all atmospheric carbon, so using this clean carbon to make synthetic cement that is carbon negative could have dramatic results.”Because buildings stand for a long time and you can recycle cement, you can basically store CO2 for a long time.”
“You have a way of building materials from the sky rather than from the ground,” says Beuttler. “And that’s the idea behind this carbon revolution.”
Future Climeworks plants could be set up according to local commercial demand, reports De Zeen, with machines located wherever there is a renewable energy source and wherever the extracted carbon, which is sold in the form of odourless liquid CO2, is needed. For example, a carbonated drinks plant in Hawaii could set up collectors next to its factory and use the carbon to make its products fizzy, Beuttler explained.
It would take around 80 million Climeworks units to remove four gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere each year – 40% of the total amount that needs to be captured each year to stabilise the climate. And that would make direct air capture of carbon one of the world’s biggest industries.
But they are well on the way, it seems to me, and part of their growth is because they want to empower everyone to be climate positive by removing carbon dioxide from the air.
They want to inspire one billion people to help by subscribing. In 2021, its Pioneer program had 6,500 subscribers. Businesses, which are increasingly setting carbon reduction strategies, also need a carbon removal strategy because some emissions are unavoidable, Climeworks says. In fact, Orca was triggered by pioneering customers wanting such a service.
And in August 2021, Climeworks got a huge vote of confidence when it and the reinsurance company Swiss Re signed the world’s first and largest 10-year purchase agreement for direct air capture and storage of carbon dioxide.
Swiss Re, which committed in 2019 to reach net-zero operational emissions by 2030 by reducing their carbon footprint and removing any residual emissions, is a key partner because the re/insurance industry is at the forefront of assessing complex risk structures including those of climate change.
“To mitigate the risks of climate change, the world needs to scale-up carbon removal on top of, not instead of emission reductions,” said Christian Mumenthaler, CEO of Swiss Re and co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders. “By partnering with Climeworks we can play to our strengths in this endeavour, as a risk taker, investor, and forward-looking buyer of climate solutions.”
“We’re mining the sky because there’s too much carbon in it” says Climeworks. Dezeen, Jun. 14 2021
The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change. New York Times, Feb. 12, 2019
Direct air capture technology. Just have a think, Jan. 20 2019
Engineering begins on UK’s first large-scale facility that captures carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Carbon Engineering, June 23, 2021.
New partnership to deploy large-scale Direct Air Capture in Norway. Carbon Engineering, Nov. 23, 2021.
Carbon removal factory. MIT Technology Review, Feb. 23, 2022
Big tech companies pledge nearly $1 billion toward carbon removal. Freethink, Apr. 23, 2022
Chevron joins first-of-its-kind Gulf Coast carbon sequestration project. Grist, May 5, 2022.