The world’s largest direct air capture plant looks to remove thousands of tonnes of CO2 from the world’s atmosphere and store it deep underground. 

What is Happening? 

Iceland is now home to the world’s largest direct air capture plant. Built by Zurich-based Climeworks, the newly-opened facility plans to capture about 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, which will then be stored underground and turned into stone. 

The Orca plant is an ambitious project to help reduce the rate of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, which has been heating up the planet’s temperature and exacerbating climate change. 

So how does the facility capture carbon? First, the plant utilises massive fans to draw in large amounts of air to make contact with chemicals that can selectively remove carbon dioxide. The carbon-rich chemicals are then heated to about 100°C to release carbon dioxide as a pure gas. Carbfix, an Icelandic startup partnered with Orca, will then mix the pure CO2 gas with water and pump it deep into basaltic rock, which will crystallise into a mineral in about two years as a process of permanent storage. 

While the Orca project has the ability to capture about 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, it reduces only a small fraction of global carbon emissions, which has been forecast by the IEA to reach up to 33 billion tonnes this year. The plant’s company originally eyed capturing 1% of annual global emissions, amounting to more than 300 million tonnes, by 2025 but has since lowered the target to 500,000 tons within the same timeline. 

However, carbon offset from Orca is already in such high commercial demand – including the likes of Bill Gates – that Climeworks has started plans on a facility that will be 10 times larger and could collect millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the next three years. 

The high demand has been surprising to some as the plant is charging as much as €1,000 (USD$1,200) for a tonne of CO2 removed. Climeworks would need to lower carbon prices to attract and encourage polluting companies to purchase carbon offsets rather than play the penalty. 

The recent UN IPCC Report considers carbon capture and storage technologies to be a crucial tool to meet goals set out in the Paris Agreement, some critics argue that throwing this much resource and energy could become a distraction of immediate carbon reduction efforts. 

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