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Climate change: The world is funding giant carbon-suction fans to clean up our mess. But can they save the planet?




Humans have released so much carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere that such cars are being used to literally inhale gas, like giant vacuum cleaners, in an effort to slow down the climate crisis and prevent some of its consequences. destructive.

The Orca plant’s name derives from the Icelandic word for energy is what is known as a “direct carbon capture structure in the air”, and its creators and operators, the Swiss firm Climeworks and the Icelandic company Carbfix, say it is the most the largest in the world.

The orca is a depressing symbol of how many bad things have been done, but equally, it can be technology that helps humanity find its way out of the crisis.

“We, as humans, have upset the balance of the natural carbon cycle. So it is our job to restore the balance,” said Edda Aradttir, a chemical engineer and CEO of Carbfix. “We are helping the natural carbon cycle to find its previous equilibrium, so for me, at least, that makes total sense, but we have to use it wisely,” she said.

It opened last month and currently removes about 10 metric tons of CO2 every day, which is roughly the same amount of carbon emitted by 800 cars a day in the USWith It’s also for the same amount of carbon 500 trees can be absorbed within a year.

It’s a good start, but in the grand scheme of things, its impact so far is small. People emit about 35 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year through the cars we drive and the flights we take, the power we use to heat our homes and the food we eat, among other activities.

All this CO2 accumulates in the air, where it acts like the glass of a greenhouse, capturing more heat in the atmosphere than the Earth has evolved to tolerate.

There comes the technology used for Orca, called carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“Capturing and storing carbon will not be the solutions to climate change, “Sandra sk Snbjrnsdttir, a Carbfix geologist, told CNN.

“But it is or solution. “And it’s one of the many solutions we have to implement to be able to achieve this great goal that we have to achieve.”

She added: “First of all, we need to stop CO2 emissions and we need to stop burning fossil fuels, the main source of CO2 emissions into our atmosphere.”

How does ‘magic’ happen

Orca machines use chemical filters to capture the gas that blocks the heat. “Fans,” or metal collectors, inhale the surrounding air and filter out CO2 in order to preserve it.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has probably not been so high at any other point in the last 3 million years, according to NASA scientists. But at levels above 410 parts per million, to capture a significant amount of CO2, a large amount of air must pass through these cars.

“What is happening is that CO2 in the air is an acid molecule and inside the collectors we have alkalis. Acids and alkalis neutralize each other,” Climeworks co-CEO Christoph Gebald told CNN. “This is the magic that happens.”

In two to four hours, the filter surface is almost completely saturated with CO2 molecules as if there is “no parking space,” as Gebald says.

“Then we stop the flow of air and heat the internal structure to approximately 100 degrees Celsius, and at that temperature, the CO2 molecules are released back from the surface, they are thrown back into the gas phase and we absorb it.”

Due to the high temperature needed for the process, the Orca plant requires a lot of energy. This is a problem that is easily solved in Iceland, where green geothermal power is abundant. But it can become a challenge to scale globally.

Credit: Patrick Gallagher

Cars in Orca are just one way to remove CO2 from the air. Other methods include trapping gas at the source such as the chimney of a cement plant or removing it from the fuel before burning. This involves exposing fuel, such as coal or natural gas, to oxygen or steam under high temperature and pressure to convert it to a mixture of hydrogen and CO2. Hydrogen is then separated and can be burned with much lower carbon emissions. However, methane emissions can be a problem when the process is used in natural gas.

The carbon coming out of CCS can be used for other purposes, for example to make objects out of plastic instead of using oil, or in the food industry, which uses CO2 to put gas in beverages. But the amount to be caught far exceeds the world demand for CO2 in other countries, which means most of it will have to be “stored”.

These igloo-like structures are the Carbfix mineralization sites, where C02 is mixed with water and injected about 800 feet underground.

In Orca, this occurs just a few hundred meters away from its vacuum in some igloo-like structures, where the gas is mixed with water and injected about 800 meters underground. There, CO2 reacts with sponge-like volcanic rocks and mineralizes as water flows further.

Emissions crisis

The latest science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade and reach net zero by 2050 to have any chance of keeping global warming at bay. 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Higher temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees, the more the world will experience an increase in extreme weather events both in strength and frequency such as droughts, hurricanes, floods and heat waves.

CCS technology sounds like the perfect solution, but it remains highly controversial, and not just because of the amount of power it needs. Its critics say the world should aim for zero emissions, not zero zeros.

But the scientific consensus is quite clear: a level of carbon capture will soon become necessary. TheIPCC estimated that even if emissions fall dramatically, to keep temperatures below 2 degrees will require the removal of 10 billion to 20 billion tons of CO2 each year by 2100.

“I do not think carbon capture is a silver bullet because there is no silver bullet,” said Nadine Mustafa, a researcher specializing in carbon capture in the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London and is not involved with Orca.

“It’s not that we’re going to fix everything using renewable energy, or that we’re going to use carbon capture and storage and fix everything with it. We’re going to need everything, especially because we’re already behind on our goals.” .

Oil and gas connection

Opponents of CCS argue that technology is simply another way for the fossil fuel industry to delay its imminent death.

While they are not involved in the Orca plant, fossil fuel giants dominate the sector. According to a database compiled by the Global CCS Institute, a pro-CCS research center, the vast majority of the world 89 CCS projects that are currently in operation, under construction or in advanced stages of development are operated by oil, gas and coal companies.

Oil companies have had and used technology to capture carbon for decades, but they have not done exactly that to reduce emissions ironically, their motivation has been to extract even more oil. This is because the CO2 they remove can be injected back into oil fields that are almost poor and help extract 30-60% more oil than with normal methods. The process is known as “enhanced oil recovery” and is one of the main reasons why CCS remains controversial.

Fossil fuel companies are also investing in the latest carbon capture technology that removes CO2 from the air, just as Orca cars do, in order to argue that they are “offsetting” emissions they cannot capture in their processes. common. It is a way to delay the inevitable destruction of fossil fuels as the world shifts to renewable energy sources.

The cars in Orca are powered by geothermal energy from the Hellisheii power plant. Iceland is home to many volcanoes and numerous geothermal springs.

There is another way to see it.

Fossil fuel companies have big bucks to invest in this expensive technology, and given that fossil fuels are by far the main driver of climate change, it can be argued that they have a responsibility to pay the bill for what they can to be the greatest clean environmental catastrophe – up to human history.

The global fossil fuel industry is worth trillions of dollars. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, publicly listed fossil fuel companies made $ 250 billion in profits, according to data compiled for CNN by Refinitiv. That figure does not include Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, which was not publicly listed until December 2019. On its own, the company earned $ 88 billion that year.

“This is a group that can move forward in providing this service to society at large,” said Graeme Sweeney, chair of the Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP), which is one of the most powerful advocates for CCS in Europe. The group acts as an advisor to the European Commission, from which it also receives part of its funding, and includes research groups, the Confederation of European Trade Unions, as well as many of the largest oil companies in the world, including Shell, Total, Equinor, ExxonMobil and BP.

As Sweeney sees it, providing this technology could be a chance for the fossil fuel industry to begin to tackle the climate crisis.

“It would be, in a sense, strange, if this was not the contribution they made,” said Sweeney, who previously worked for Shell for three decades.

Asked if CCS should be used to allow more fossil fuel production in the future something that climate activists worry about Sweeney said: “If we fix this properly, then it will produce a result which is compatible with net zero in 2050 … what is the problem? ”

A residual risk in this technology is the impact that carbon storage on Earth may have, or at least on its immediate environment. In its special report on carbon capture and storage, the IPCC said that by far the greatest risk comes from potential leaks. A sudden and large release of CO2 would be extremely dangerous. In the air, a CO2 concentration of about 10% is lethal, but even much lower levels can cause health problems.

Again a massive risk to take.

But the idea of ​​using deep sea depots is not new and has been used for some time. At Sleipner, a gas field in Norway, CO2 has been injected underground since 1996. The site has been closely monitored, and apart from some problems during the first year, it has not shown any problems in its 25 years of operation.

Snbjrnsdttir, who heads Carbfix CO2’s mineral warehouse for Orca, said the mineralization process they use in Iceland eliminates the risk of leaks. And the basalt which is volcanic rock around the plant creates an ideal geological deposit.

A comparison of sponge-like basalt rock, before and after having had contact with C02 at one of the Carbfix mineralization sites. The last object is C02 turned to stone; nothing is added except calcium.

“These rocks are very permeable, so they’re like a sponge, and you have a lot of fractures for the CO2 – laden liquid to leak out, so it mineralizes fairly quickly,” Snbjrnsdttir said.

Standing near the injection site, Snbjrnsdttir grabbed a piece of crystallized calcium carbonate, known here as the Icelandic spar, and held it against sunlight. “This is nature’s way of turning CO2 into stone, in its most beautiful way,” she said as small reflections of light from the rock bounced off the walls around her.

“Once you have mineralized CO2, it stays there forever.”




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