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Iceland: World’s Biggest Carbon Capture Machine Launched

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Emily Davies reports as the world’s largest machine to suck CO2 from the air and turn it into rock has switched on.

Photo by Fernando Puente

The world’s largest machine to such CO2 directly from the atmosphere and convert it to rock, permanently trapping it underground, has begun operation in Iceland.

It is the first machine to permanently trap the CO2 rather than recycling it, and has the potential to not only negate greenhouse gas emissions, but deliver negative emissions in the future too.

The plant is named ‘Orca’ after the Icelandic word for energy (‘orka’), and was set up by Swiss company Climeworks and Icelandic company Carbfix for the price of between $10 million and $15 million.

A Work in Progress

The two companies say the machine can take up to 4,000 tons of CO2 from the air every year – equivalent to the annual emissions of about 870 cars or 250 U.S. residents. Even though this is a small amount, Jan Wurzbacher, one of Climeworks’ co-founders, told Bloomberg:

“Already the demand for carbon removal at Orca is so high that we have decided to scale up this plant and build a roughly 10 times larger plant in about three years.”

Climeworks’ goal is to capture 1% of global emissions with a range of carbon capture infrastructure by 2025 – this is more than 300 million tons. Orca could be a big step in the right direction, and Climeworks is now aiming to capture 500,000 tons of carbon by the end of this decade.

The machine uses fans to draw air into a collection system which filters material, with high temperatures isolating the CO2. Next, the CO2 is mixed with water and injected into basalt rock, where the process of mineralisation begins. Over the course of two years, this is turned into stone.

Carbon Capture

Tackling global warming by removing CO2 from the air is becoming a more and more popular idea, but critics of this method say it is too expensive, especially when trees do the same thing naturally.

Besides replating trees, the use of microalgae has become a popular carbon capture solution. The plants efficiently capture large amounts of CO2, and can then be used as biomass for a range of purposes such as fuel and high-value chemicals. This method both captures carbon dioxide and utilises it.

Other methods currently being researched include reducing CO2 to its constituent parts for use in other substances like methanol, urea (for use in fertiliser) or polymers (for use in building materials), and combining CO2 with hydrogen to produce hydrocarbon fuels. According to the IEA, carbon capture projects could reduce the cost of dealing with climate change by 70%, but costs are still high and more research is required to hone the practice.

An Opportunity for Greenwashing?

Anything that removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is a good development for the planet. However, the idea of carbon capture can easily be exploited. While not as obvious as carbon off-setting, carbon capture has been used by some companies to make it seem like are doing more to reduce their carbon footprint than they actually are.

For example, Inside Climate News examined how Exxon - one of the world's largest international oil and gas companies - is exploiting this technology. It sells the CO2 it captures to companies that use it to revive depleted oil fields. Exxon often boasts about its efforts to improve its environmental impact through carbon capture, but it is important to examine what actually happens to the captured CO2. Is it turned into rock, like in Iceland? Or used for some other, more damaging purpose?

So, as more carbon capture plants and technologies emerge, it is crucial that the practices involved are kept both ethical and efficient to ensure the best is being done for the planet.


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