World’s Largest Carbon Capture Plant Has Just Started Operation in Iceland

A plant capable of removing 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year has just been launched in Iceland. And that’s just the beginning.

Image credit: Climeworks

Increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events, including wildfires and droughts, have dominated the news in recent years. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautions that the world will see more and more of this in years to come, and emphasizes that it is crucial to reduce our emissions drastically and remove unavoidable and historic carbon dioxide emissions from the air permanently. Despite the fact that some countries have put effective measures in place to cut down on air pollution, global carbon dioxide emissions are still actually increasing, while hardly any efforts are being made to remove the existing amount from earth’s atmosphere.

Enter Orca – named after the Icelandic word for “energy” – the largest carbon removal facility in the world that turns CO₂ emissions into minerals which can than be permanently stored deep underground. Sounds good, but isn’t that pollution as well? And how does this monster work anyway? Well, read on.

Image credit: Climeworks

Constructed by Swiss company Climeworks, Orca uses enormous fans to suck air into eight collector units that have highly selective filters inside to capture the carbon dioxide on their surfaces, IFLScience reports. Once they are full, the collector units are closed and the temperature inside is heated to between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), on which the CO₂ is released and can be collected as a highly concentrated gas.

Using technology developed by Carbfix, another Icelandic firm, the carbon dioxide extracted gets stored safely through underground mineralization. The geologic features of Iceland provide ideal conditions for this process, whereby the CO₂ is dissolved in water and is then buried deep inside the basalt rock formations lying underground. In about two years, the carbon in the solution is crystallized into carbonate minerals, which become permanently trapped, ultimately fusing with the rock. So basically, the carbon goes back to where it came from – under the ground.

Image credit: Climeworks

The energy required to run Orca comes from purely renewable resources and is supplied by the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant. With this setup, Climeworks claims to ensure that the facility”s “grey emissions” are kept below ten percent. This means that at least 90 percent of the carbon captured is permanently removed and less than 10 percent is re-emitted.

The facility took just over a year to build and became fully operational on September 8. For now, Orca is capable of removing a quantity of carbon emitted by approximately 870 cars, though the company hopes to increase the plant’s capacity significantly over the coming years.

The obvious question to ask at point would be: OK, but could this thing save us all from the climate catastrophe?

Well, carbon capture has been seen by many as an important way to fight global climate change, while others believe that the cost of building and operating such plants makes them unfeasible altogether. However, Orca seems to be a promising project that might prove the latter wrong, as combining such efforts with the use of renewable energy could indeed pay out for us all in the long term – they could help us save our planet.

And it can even pay out for the largest emitter companies – who seem to be much less concerned with our future, unless it is related to profit. According to Bloomberg, individuals who wish to reduce their environmental footprint can purchase carbon offsets from Climeworks for $1,200 per ton of carbon dioxide. The company hopes to reduce that price to less than $200 per ton of carbon dioxide by the middle of the next decade, when Orca is projected to reach full operational capacity. Now, that price range would definitely make carbon offsets much more attractive to polluters, as the costs involved would be less than those incurred by the fines they have to pay for high emissions.

And that could be the real game changer.

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