(Featured Image provided by climeworks.com)
In January, Elon Musk said that whoever could build the best technology for capturing carbon, would receive a prize of $100 million dollars. If you don’t know, carbon capture, as the name suggests, is the process of extracting carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, and storing it to reduce the effect of global warming on our planet. Companies like Microsoft are already starting on this, stating that they hope to be carbon negative by 2030, as well as “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975,” by 2050. World leaders from the U.S, China, and the European Union are also planning long term projects to hopefully accomplish net zero emissions.
Climeworks, a Swiss company, and Carbfix are currently constructing eight giant carbon collectors to add on to a plant in Iceland which today captures and stores about 55 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Currently, Climeworks only has one facility which extracts 110 tons per year, but these collectors will raise the Icelandic plant’s capacity to 4,400 tons every year. Last year, the International Energy Agency reported that there are 15 facilities in the U.S, China, and Europe, but they only extract 9,900 tons a year. For scale, that only accounts for the annual emissions of 600 average Americans, so these new facilities will be a big help. How they work is that every collector has a large fan which sucks in air from the atmosphere. Then, specialized filters extract the CO2, which then is combined with water. The result ends in a type of acid, which is then pumped 2600-6500 feet underground where it materialises into rock and is buried.
While the collectors will do a great job, the main downside of building them is that they’re very, very expensive. In fact, one of the reasons why they were built in Iceland and not anywhere else is because of the country’s massive, cheap supply of geothermal energy. Stripe, a company U.S., last year offered that they would pay Climeworks $775 per tonne (About 1.1 tons), and Microsoft also stated that they would invest in Climeworks too this January if they could bury 1500 tons.
However, as said before, Climeworks aren’t alone in their efforts. The Canada based company known as Carbon Engineering has said that they and their partners are planning to build enough DAC (Direct-air-capture) facilities to capture 1 million tons per year. The company estimates that all of these facilities will be, “equivalent to the work of 40 million trees.” The U.S. based company Global Thermostat is working with others such as Coca cola, so that they can use the carbon dioxide to make soda rather than just bury it. They’re also working with ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil giants and top corporate emitters of greenhouse gases, to help reduce their carbon footprint.
However, cost is still one of the biggest problems with constructing these massive facilities. For every tonne of carbon dioxide, the companies have to pay from a range of $250-$600 each day, an extremely extravagant price. “Getting below $200 is an important step,” said Jan Wurzbacher, director and co-founder of Climeworks. He’s also praised companies who’ve pledged to work towards net zero emission, but investments so far are lacking for Climework’s goal of capturing between 33,000,000 and 55,000,000 tons annually.
Critics often say that planting trees and protecting old forests might be the better way to go, since it’s significantly cheaper. However, Edda Sif Aradóttir, CEO of Carbfix, has said that while they are much more affordable, trees can suffer logging, wildfires, land clearance, and that these facilities will be much more important. “We should plant as many forests as we can and protect as many as we can. But we are beyond the ‘either/or’ in choosing how to slow warming,” said Wurzbacher. As of now, Carbfix has shot more than 71,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the ground since 2014, and that number continues to grow. Wurzbacher says that the new Icelandic plant will be named “Orca,” and other plants in the future will most likely also be named after animals.
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