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The Problems with the ‘Miracle’ Cure of Sucking Carbon Out of the Air

For starters, we’d need something like 250,000 such sky vacuums to remove just 1 percent of our carbon emissions

No doom, no gloom, just hard facts: Our planet’s climate is changing fast.

A big problem is no one knows exactly how fast. “Scary fast” seems to be the best answer. Whether the President of the United States chooses to admit it or not, the Earth clearly has a carbon problem. Thankfully, our best and brightest minds recognize that we all share this carbon-based crisis. Trouble is, they don’t agree on what we should do about it. There may, however, be a silver bullet to slay this emergent monster.

Maybe.

Imagine you’re in a windowless room with 10 people. One person lights a cigarette. It’s a terrible idea, but you let it go. Then a second dude lights a cigar. A third person starts to vape. The air quickly grows thick with chemicals. Your eyes and nose start to burn. You cough. When a fourth person tries to light another cigar, you speak up, “That’s it! No more cigars! No more cigarettes! No more smoking!”

That’s like a carbon cap. It’s a limit on emissions. We’ve set a global limit for carbon emissions. That’s an important component in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

But back to our smoky, windowless room. Even with a carbon cap, there’s still all that smoke in the air. If you had to breathe that air, you’d probably be thinking about other solutions besides a carbon cap, wouldn’t you? Just like with our theoretical smoky, windowless room, our Earth has no way to vent the foul air. But you know what would remove all the bad smoky air from that windowless room? A vacuum cleaner. It’s not ideal, but it would work.

That’s carbon capture. Suck the chemicals and smoke from the air. Or in the case of our warming planet, we suck the excess carbon from the atmosphere. We call this process carbon mitigation.

Imagine then a carbon-removal process that relies on renewable energy sources and waste heat to power its passive atmospheric absorption. A sustainable machine that basically acts like a tree — one that draws its energy from waste materials, just like manure. Experts call that Direct Air Capture Technology. And there’s a company doing it called Climeworks. They’ve been working on their possibly revolutionary technology for a decade.

Climeworks was founded in 2009 by two college friends: Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher.

The hardcore brains of the operation seems to be Gebald. He studied mechanical engineering in Zurich, did graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley — studying “heat and mass transfer and the thermodynamics of chemical engineering” — and he holds a PhD from ETH Zurich. In English, that would be the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Gebald is the one who runs the development of the company’s sorbent technologies. (As Wikipedia defines it, “A sorbent is a material used to adsorb liquids or gases”; you can read more about sorbent science here, if that’s your thing.)

Wurzbacher seems to be more about the big vision. He’s the Jobs to Gebald’s Wozniak. That said, he’s no intellectual slouch either. He, too, holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering from ETH Zurich. And when he studied abroad in Australia, his focus was “energy and control systems and solar thermal cycles.”

Now, working together as co-founders of Climeworks, their goal is to capture 1 percent of our annual global carbon-dioxide emissions. This would be hugely critical to keeping our planet from getting any warmer.

Louise Charles, Climeworks communications manager, explains that its direct-air carbon-capture business is already active in three markets — food/beverage/agriculture; renewable fuels and materials; and what she calls “carbon-dioxide removal.” “You may be familiar with the plant that we have in Iceland,” she says. “That’s where we’re capturing CO2. We pump it underground, basically. Then, it’s mineralized. Thus far, we’ve sold the CO2 removal capacity to corporations that want to reverse their emissions. From next year onward, we’ll be offering that to anybody who wants to reverse their emissions.”

Does that include the industrial smokestacks, the electrical generation plants and the coal flues? Would Climework’s direct air-capture technology work to minimize CO2 from these heavy polluters? On that count, Charles’ answer is a little disappointing. “What CO2 Climeworks focuses on is only captured from ambient air,” she responds, before adding, “The process of capturing CO2 from ambient air is very different than capturing it from a point source, because the concentrations are so different.”

In other words, Climeworks can’t just stick its technology in a chimney and call it a day. “A point source can be up to 20 percent carbon dioxide in that flue gas, whereas in ambient air it’s .04 percent,” Charles explains. “So it’s a very, very low concentration. That means our process is different than traditional flue-gas capture. The filter materials are different. Ours is more selective than traditional materials. Ours is highly selective.”

Still, the process is rather simple. As atmospheric CO2 sticks to Climeworks’ specialized filters, the surface grows saturated with carbon-dioxide molecules. Imagine dew collecting on grass. Next, the collected atmospheric CO2 is processed at roughly 100 degrees celsius. It’s separated through desorption and isolated as a gas. The captured gas can then be sold in the industrial commercial markets.

“It’s a cyclic process,” Charles explains. “What that means is when the absorption/desorption process is complete, the filter material can be reused. And it can be reused many thousands of times.”

Climeworks first direct-air-capture plant was on the roof of a waste recovery facility in Hinwil, Switzerland. Since then, Climeworks has installed nine plants in six countries. In Iceland, the company is working with Reykjavik Energy on an underground sequestration project. The pilot program was commissioned and installed in October 2017. “It’s been running now successfully for a year,” says Charles. “So we have the proof of concept. Over the next few years, that set-up will now be scaled up 30 and 40 times in size. And at that size, it’ll be capturing many thousands of tons per year.”

It’s part of a larger green energy program by Reykjavik Energy called the CarbFix2 Project that plans to shoot carbon-dioxide-soaked water 700 meters beneath the surface (or about one-third of a mile) into bedrock. Down in the fissures of rock, the water interacts with basalt rock formations, crystalizes, mineralizes and forms a “permanent, safe and irreversible storage solution.”

Given that Climeworks Swiss plant only captures 900 tons of carbon dioxide annually — that’s roughly equivalent to what would be emitted by 200 cars — we’ll need thousands of carbon-capture plants if we have any hopes of cleaning our air. In fact, Climeworks says we’d need to build about 250,000 of their direct-air-capture devices to reduce global carbon emissions by their stated goal of 1 percent.

Standardization is also an issue — both in terms of price and size — though it seems this is somewhat by design. “The way we build the technology is modular, so we can literally, combine… You may have seen pictures of Hinwil, it’s basically 18 carbon dioxide collectors. Six of them can fit inside a shipping container, and we can stack the shipping containers in whatever formation we like. So a plant we build, they can be as small or as large as we choose.”

Similar to what Reykjavik Energy is doing to mineralize CO2, another interesting idea for carbon mitigation is to sequester CO2 in building materials like cement. Charles gently points out, though, that’s not Climeworks current business model—yet. “What the external companies do with our direct-air-captured carbon dioxide isn’t what we deal with. We deliver the CO2, and they can do with it what they like. That said, the sequestered carbon concrete market is a very interesting potential, and one we’d be up for.”

There are only a handful of companies in the world that do what Climeworks does. The other big industry leader, and Climeworks’ main competition, is Carbon Engineering. It also builds atmospheric carbon-capture devices. Naturally, both companies have critics.

In order to silence theirs, Carbon Engineering has released data on its capture process, the efficiency therein, and most importantly, its cost. Just a few years ago, it cost roughly $600 to process a ton of carbon from the atmosphere — validating the criticism that carbon capture is too expensive to be considered a realistic option. Carbon Engineering’s numbers, however, show that it can operate at a far more efficient $100 per ton cost—a dollar amount Climeworks quotes as well. (Critics of direct-air-capture technologies also argue that pulling carbon from the atmosphere is a job best left to trees since they do it for free; so we just need to plant more of them.)

One such critic, Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research, has gone as far as to call direct-air carbon-capture tech a “moral hazard par excellence.” He believes it’s a distraction from the mitigation agenda, and isn’t a sound substitute to reducing emissions. In a tweet thread about the IPCC report on Climate Change, he zeroed in on the ability (or lack thereof) of direct-air-capture technology to save us:

It’s a good point. That is, do we even have the time to passively absorb carbon dioxide?

Charles is unsparing in her response. “The IPCC report is just one example of a few reports that have come out within the last few months that clearly state — and climate experts from across the globe agree — that to meet the 1½-degree or 2-degree climate warning target, the world needs to reduce its emissions as far as it can. But even if we stopped emitting tomorrow, that wouldn’t be enough to meet those goals. We’ve emitted too much. As well as reducing our emissions, we need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s where the Climeworks comes in.”

But there’s another concern, too. If Climeworks is sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, does that signal to polluters that they don’t need to worry as much about emissions as long as they have these vacuum cleaners to clean the air?

“Climeworks is in no way meant to incentivize anyone to continue emitting because they can think, Oh well, Climeworks can just remove that again,” says Charles. “It’s no longer a situation where we can decide between the two: either we reduce, or we remove. It’s now at a point where we need to be reducing emissions as far as we can, and on top of that, also removing. With that perspective, as far as the moral hazard goes, it no longer fits into the puzzle. Because it’s not a choice between two options. It’s clearly stated by climate experts that we need both options of reducing and removing.”

That said, the IPCC report doesn’t necessarily seem convinced about direct-air-capture tech either. Particularly, the report states, “The effectiveness of such techniques are unproven at large scale, and some may carry significant risks for sustainable development.”

“I mean, they’re not wrong,” Charles responds. “The first part of that quote, it mentioned that direct-air-capture hasn’t been proven on a large scale. That part is correct. There’s not many companies in the world specializing in direct-air-capture. It’s an early stage technology. It’s yet to be optimized, developed and scaled up. So they’re right in that it doesn’t yet exist on a really, really large scale. But that’s to come.”

Why, though, would the IPCC report claim that direct-air-capture poses a significant risk to sustainable development? I ask Charles if she thinks that the concern is that heavy industrial polluters will think carbon removal tech works and not do their part. “Thus far, yeah,” she agrees.

So then, what about the heaviest polluters? You know: the petrochemical industry, aka the hydrocarbon industry, aka Big Oil? Has it approached Climeworks? It would make perfect, almost poetic, sense that they’d be the ones to advance this technology.

“I can’t name names, but yes, we’re in touch with a handful,” Charles says.

That’s probably one of the reasons why Climeworks just successfully secured $31 million in private equity financing, bringing the total investment in the company to roughly $50 million. It’s also doubled in size from 30 to 60 employees. What do their investors see? Other than the obvious fact that they feel like they’re doing a good and right thing.

“They invested, essentially, because they believe in the Climeworks vision,” Charles answers. It’s a sales pitch, but she doesn’t need to sell it that hard. “They believe in the technology. They believe the technology is needed. They believe the technology is needed on a larger scale and needs to be scaled-up and needs to be optimized. They’re fully behind the Climeworks vision.”

The company is currently partnered with the Swiss and German governments as well. Charles tells me Asian nations that she won’t name are also in discussions about constructing large-scale carbon-capture plants. It would be good if these unnamed countries were China and Japan since they’ve been building new coal power plants — or the exact opposite of what the world needs.

Ultimately, you can’t blame Climeworks for how its technology gets used by the businesses that commission them to build their carbon-capture devices. It’s a new business market, but it’s a business after all. And all businesses have their own agendas, which at least in Climeworks’ case is to build enough modular carbon collectors to reduce carbon emissions by 1 percent globally. That’s an important goal.

But if we’re being real about it, of Climeworks’ three markets, only its work on carbon sequestration — like what they’re doing in Iceland, dubbed “the world’s first carbon removal solution through direct air capture” — will reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Capturing carbon from the air and using it for agriculture, packaging materials or beverages will not really help anyone, except for stockholders. And it certainly won’t truly help fight climate change.

Instead, we need the focus to be on carbon capture and sequestration, or how we turn the stuff into buried crystals and cement for swimming pools. Because that’s both a business and maybe one of the few things that can save us.