Stefan Hitz put his job on hold, driving a strange-looking car in Iceland’s otherworldly landscape, and used the Star Wars analogy to explain his work at the forefront of climate technology.
“I feel like I came from the dark side to become a Jedi warrior,” he joked, resisting the cold wind blowing through treeless stretches of cooled lava and distant volcanoes.
The 37-year-old service technician from Zurich spent nine years in the aviation and maritime industries before joining Climeworks, a Swiss startup that is trying to repair the damage done by such highly polluting industries.
“You really enjoy knowing that you are helping the planet, not damaging it,” he said.
Hitz and his small team of technicians are working with Orca, the world’s largest commercial direct air capture device, which began extracting carbon dioxide from the air in September at a facility 20 miles outside the capital, Reykjavik.
As the wind kicked up clouds of steam rising from the nearby Hellishady geothermal power plant, the Orca emitted a faint hum that resembled four huge air conditioners, each the size of a shipping container mounted on top of the other.
Each container contains 12 large circular fans powered by renewable electricity from a geothermal power plant that suck air into steel catchment boxes where carbon dioxide, or CO2, the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming, chemically bonds with a sand-like filter medium.
When heat is applied to the filter media, it releases CO2, which is then mixed with water by the Icelandic company Carbfix to create drinking soda water.
Several other firms are trying to extract carbon from the air in the United States and elsewhere, but it is only here on Iceland’s volcanic plateaus that CO2 turns into this sparkling cocktail and is pumped several hundred meters into the basalt rocks.
Carbfix found that its CO2 mixture would chemically react with basalt and turn into rock in just two or three years instead of the centuries thought to have been taken up by the mineralization process, so it takes the CO2 that Climeworks captures and pumps it into the ground through wells protected from the harsh environmental conditions by steel igloos that could easily support a sci-fi movie.
This is a permanent solution, as opposed to planting forests, which can release carbon from decay, deforestation, or burning on a warming planet. Some experts fear that even the carbon dioxide that other companies plan to pump into empty oil and gas fields could eventually seep, but once the carbon is converted into rock, it won’t go anywhere.
Orca is billed as the world’s first commercial direct air capture plant as the 4,000 metric tons of CO2 it can extract each year was paid for by 8,000 people who signed up online to remove some of the carbon, as well as firms including Stripe, Swiss Re , Audi. and Microsoft.
Rock group Coldplay recently joined these companies in paying Climeworks voluntary carbon credits to offset some of their own emissions. The firm hopes to one day make a profit by cutting its costs below the selling price of these loans.
The problem is that Orca’s products only account for three seconds of humankind’s annual CO2 emissions, which are closer to 40 billion metric tons, but Orca at least showed that the concept of purifying air and removing carbon back underground has moved from science fiction to science.
Tarek Soliman, London-based climate change analyst at HSBC Global Research, said the Reykjavik launch is not a kind of “quantum leap” that will prove the technology can reach the scale and cost needed to make a real impact on climate change.
“But this is a step in that direction,” Soliman said. “Given that direct air capture is considered nonsense by many people, it is something that you can see and touch, which opens the door to authenticity.”
Christoph Gebald, co-founder of Climeworks, is adamant that technology can grow into a trillion-dollar industry in the next three or four decades. COP26 assumes that most countries commit to zero emissions by 2050.
“This would be the result of a dream for Glasgow, as decision-makers recognize that any approach leading to net zero must include carbon removal as well as emission reductions,” he said from Zurich.
The future of carbon sequestration hinges on cost savings, which Gebald said now range from $ 600 to $ 800 per metric ton. Increasing production could bring these costs down to $ 200-300 per ton by 2030 and from $ 100 to $ 150 by 2035, he said.
Direct takeover would already be competitive if it received subsidies to help electric vehicles and solar panels develop and thrive, Gebald said.
The fundamental difference from wind and solar power is that they were ultimately driven by a profit motive because when subsidies helped make them competitive, they produced a valuable asset: cheap electricity.
The main “result” of direct air entrapment – helping to save the planet – must instead rely on government support such as emission credits and carbon taxes, hence the importance of meetings such as the Glasgow conference.
Grimsson speaks gloomily about Glasgow, saying that “the problem is that COPs are looking for ways to cut emissions in the first place.”
That’s okay, he said, but “we also need to destroy some of the carbon that’s already in the air. If we don’t start doing this very, very quickly, we will never be successful in the fight against climate change. ”