Is Carbon Capture Here?

“Is carbon capture here?” asks a headline from the New York Times.

A Swiss company named Climeworks “is operating a device in Iceland that sucks CO2 from the air and shoots it into the ground, where it turns into rock.”[Stephan] Hitz and his small team of technicians are running Orca, the world’s biggest commercial direct air capture (DAC) device, which in September began pulling carbon dioxide out of the air at a site 20 miles from the capital, Reykjavik.

As the wind stirred up clouds of steam billowing from the nearby Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, a gentle hum came from Orca, which resembles four massive air-conditioners, each the size of one shipping container sitting on top of another. Each container holds 12 large round fans powered by renewable electricity from the geothermal plant, which suck air into steel catchment boxes where carbon dioxide or CO2, the main greenhouse gas behind global warming, chemically bonds with a sandlike filtering substance.

When heat is applied to that filtering substance it releases the CO2, which is then mixed with water by an Icelandic company called Carbfix to create a drinkable fizzy water. Several other firms are striving to pull carbon from the air in the United States and elsewhere, but only here in the volcanic plateaus of Iceland is the CO2 being turned into that sparkling cocktail and injected several hundred meters down into basalt bedrock.

Carbfix has discovered that its CO2 mix will chemically react with basalt and turn to rock in just two or three years instead of the centuries that the mineralization process was believed to take, so it takes the CO2 that Climeworks’ DAC captures and pumps it into the ground through wells protected from the harsh environment by steel igloos that could easily serve as props in a space movie. It is a permanent solution, unlike the planting of forests which can release their carbon by rotting, being cut down or burning in a warming planet. Even the CO2 that other firms are planning to inject into empty oil and gas fields could eventually leak out, some experts fear, but once carbon turns to rock it is not going anywhere.

Orca is billed as the world’s first commercial DAC unit because the 4,000 metric tons of CO2 it can extract each year have been paid for by 8,000 people who have subscribed online to remove some carbon, and by firms including Stripe, Swiss Re, Audi and Microsoft. The rock band Coldplay recently joined those companies in paying Climeworks for voluntary carbon credits to offset some of their own emissions.

The firm hopes to one day turn a profit by getting its costs below the selling price of those credits.
Current cost: about $600 to $800 per metric ton.