Can a revolutionary new process in Iceland actually help stop global warming?

Our planet is changing. It’s our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative titled Our changing planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about them.

The black lava fields and billowing steam valves from an active volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland, are the backdrop for a new venture that could help change the global calculation of climate change.

The plant, known as Orca, traps CO2 straight out of the air – essentially purifying the atmosphere of harmful greenhouse gases.

“Like, imagine when we started 14 years ago, there was absolutely no support for what we were doing,” said Christoph Gebald, 38, a German-born engineer now based in Zurich, Switzerland.

“I’m very excited about where we are.”

A direct air capture facility, called Orca, sits on a volcanic plain outside the city of Reykjavik, Iceland. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

Gebald’s company, Climeworks, which he co-founded, has proven to be one of the early leaders in a technology known as direct air capture.

The plant in Iceland is the largest of its kind in the world.

Scientists have known for decades how to take CO2 out of the air, but it has been intangible to use the technology on a large scale and in a way that makes economic sense.

With the COP26 climate summit ready to begin on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, and the world in search of solutions to decarbonise faster, there has been an increase in interest in how new technologies can help get there.

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Filters at the direct air capture system capture the CO2 gas, which is sucked in by fans. The filters are then heated with steam to shake off the trapped gas. The gas is passed to the next stage, where it is mixed with water and injected underground. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it is known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the early 1990s, and subsequent climate agreements.

Climeworks is now among more than a dozen companies around the globe – including some in Canada – taking a new and, for some, controversial track by trying to capture dispersed greenhouse gases to counter the effects of climate change.

Proponents suggest that carbon capture technology is expensive, and its impact on atmospheric CO2 lowering is questionable.

In July, hundreds of Canadian and American environmentalists joined forces to urge governments to stop investing in carbon sequestration, arguing that it removes focus from reducing emissions, which should be the primary directive on climate action.

The Climeworks plant is located on the site of one of Iceland’s largest geothermal plants, approximately 50 kilometers outside the capital Reykjavik. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

However, their struggle seemed to be largely directed at the oil, gas and coal industries and their investments in capturing and sequestering pollutants coming out of the stack.

Instead, direct air collection aims to collect greenhouse gases that have already been dispersed into the air.

In fact, proponents say, as the gases orbit the globe, such facilities can be built anywhere and used to purify the entire planet’s air.

Gebald said in a struggle as all-consuming as climate change that technology can play a crucial role.

“We need direct air collection as a solution to things we could not otherwise reduce. It’s emissions from agriculture, it’s emissions from operations that are physically difficult to avoid CO2, such as aviation,” Gebald told CBC News via Zoom when a CBC team was on tour. the orcas plant.

“Climate science is asking for this, and Orca is delivering that product.”

Kari Helgason, head of research and innovation at Carbfix, holds porous basalt stone, to the right, and another sample that has been filled with petrified carbon dioxide gas. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

The Climeworks plant is located about 50 kilometers outside the Icelandic capital, next to the Hellisheiði power plant, which is operated by Reykjavik Energy.

It is a geothermal plant that utilizes the heat from the Earth’s core to provide clean, inexpensive electricity.

Pipes with superheated steam cross the mountainside and drive the huge electric turbines at the power plant.

The Orca plant next door appears relatively modest in comparison.

It consists of a series of modules the size of a shipping container filled with dozens of blowers, all attached to white, tubular filter bags.

The fans draw in the air from the outside, and the CO2 molecules bind chemically to the filters. The filters heat up and shake off the trapped gas, which is led to the next part of the process.

SE | Taking carbon dioxide out of the air and turning it into underground rocks:

The world’s largest carbon suction plant

Two companies – Climeworks and Carbfix – have partnered in Iceland to scrub carbon dioxide directly out of the air and then pump it deep underground, where it has turned to rock. 1:16

That phase is handled by Carbfix, a publicly owned Icelandic company that is part of the electricity supply.

Kari Helgason, Carbfix’s head of research and innovation, took our CBC crew into an igloo-like structure filled with even more tubes.

There, he said, the CO2 gas is mixed with water and sprayed 800 meters into the volcanic rocks where it spreads. Over the course of months, it interacts chemically with the basalt rock and fossils and turns to rock.

Helgason said Iceland’s capacity to seal such harmful gases is enormous.

“Iceland could store about 50 times humanity’s annual emissions,” he said, noting that Carbfix is ​​exploring ways to send CO2 from other countries and burying it in the same way.

Iceland’s geology consists largely of porous basalt rock, an ideal place to store CO2, which chemically reacts with the rock and fossils. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

Helgason said the extremely porous volcanic rock that dominates Iceland’s geology is ideal for storing C02 because there is no risk of the gas escaping. There is also no chance that the process can have unwanted side effects, such as earthquakes, which can sometimes occur during fracking.

“Nature cleans up after itself,” Helgason said. “It takes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it in rocks. We just speed up the process with the help of science and innovation.”

Carbfix was a pioneer in the process of burying unwanted emissions from the geothermal plant, but now handles CO2 from Climeworks and possibly other companies in the future.

‘A little overwhelming’

“It’s a little overwhelming, I must admit. A bit like the Wild West, where everyone is struggling to decarbonize now, while we should have started 10, 20 years ago.”

The Climeworks operation has the capacity to remove about 10 tons of CO2 a day, or about 4,000 tons a year.

To put it in perspective, it equates to just a few seconds of the world’s annual emissions. But Gebald, the co-founder, said it is only the beginning and larger plants will follow with the hope of scaling up to 30 million tonnes annually within 15 to 20 years.

The last part of the capture and sequestration process takes place in these igloo-like structures. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

In fact, a Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, BC, is designing a plant in West Texas that would have about 250 times the capacity of the Iceland plant – or more than a million tons per year.

It plans to use the empty reservoirs deep under old fields to seal the unwanted gases.

“We will start construction next year and the plant will be operational, we believe, by the end of 2024,” CEO Steve Oldham told CBC News in an interview.

Oldham’s company has had a small demonstration unit on the company’s website at Howe Sound since 2015. It is also building a new, larger demonstration plant in Squamish, which will open in the coming months.

To convert CO2 into synthetic fuel

Carbon Engineering’s other ventures include a $ 1.3 billion partnership with Upper Nicola First Nation to transform carbon captured from the air into synthetic fuel.

Texas’ direct air collection facility is being bankrolled by Occidental Petroleum, one of the largest exploration and production companies in the world, where Carbon Engineering provides design and technological expertise.

“Why are we building a factory in the United States? Because they actually have the policies in place today that close the business case,” Oldham said, noting that a combination of carbon taxes and tax deductions has helped make a compelling argument that there is a value for companies in removing carbon from the air.

“Our prices for permanent removal [of carbon] from our first plant starts at 300 USD per. ton. We are very confident that prices will fall. “

Engineer Kari Helgason stares through a porthole into a stirrer used to inject CO2 gas that has been mixed with water underground. (Stephanie Jenzer / CBC)

Oldham, who formed his company back in 2009, said it is extremely rewarding to see years of work finally being validated.

“Direct air collection is difficult. You know CO2 in the atmosphere is 400 ppm – that’s the equivalent of a single drop of ink in a swimming pool. So it’s hard to extract it in a cost-effective way. And that’s why we and Climeworks have been in this industry for many, many years. “

The arrival of Climeworks in Iceland created a lot of discussion at the recent Polar Circle Forum in Reykjavik.

Well received in Iceland

The meeting brought together thousands of delegates from northern countries, where the fight against climate change was at the top of the agenda.

SE | A glacier lagoon grows when an ice sheet melts:

Iceland is losing its ice cream

The Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon grows every year as the Vatnajokull ice over it melts, and has doubled in size within the last 20 years. 0:59

Although environmentalists elsewhere have expressed concern that major oil companies are supporting direct air capture projects, the Climeworks operation and Carbfix’s role in burying the carbon have been well received in the country.

“We really are at this point where we just have to fight on every battlefield and we need everyone to come together,” said Tinna Hallgrimsdottir, a prominent young environmentalist who has followed Climework’s progress.

Tinna Hallgrimsdottir, a prominent Icelandic environmentalist who has followed Climework’s progress, says “we need everyone to come together” in the fight against climate change. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

“We can not just skip one thing. We just have to do everything at the same time. But the emphasis must always be on emission reduction, but it will come as something that helps us just bridge the gap we need. . “

In a conference call with foreign media on the eve of the Glasgow summit, the British politician in charge of COP26 refused to be drawn into a discussion on how important direct air capture will be in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

A worker performs maintenance on the fans at Climeworks. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

Still, Alok Sharma told reporters that he believes it will play a role of some kind.

“I think we will see and you have seen embryonic technology start to emerge and that will definitely be part of the solution in terms of tackling climate change.

Do you have questions about this story? We respond as many as we can in the comments.

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