World’s biggest factory to suck carbon from the sky turns on in Iceland

Orca system mixes greenhouse gas with water and pumps it underground

Vishwam Sankaran
Saturday 11 September 2021 15:21
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The world’s first and largest factory to capture and convert carbon dioxide from the air into stone began operations in Iceland on Wednesday.

The Orca plant set up by Swiss startup Climeworks AG to reduce the effects of the greenhouse gas on the planet represents a milestone in the direct air capture industry.

While Climeworks has built 16 installations across Europe, the Orca plant is the only one that permanently captures and stores CO2 rather than recycling it.

According to Climeworks, every year the factory has a capacity to capture 4,000 tons of CO2, which is safely and permanently stored via a chemical process developed by Carbfix, an academic-industrial partnership in Iceland.

In this process, CO2 captured from the atmosphere is mineralised underground and converted into stones.

The air-captured CO2 is mixed with water and pumped deep underground, where it is trapped in stone through a natural mineralization process that takes under two years, Carbfix noted.

While the plant is capable of capturing only a tiny fraction of the global annual emissions of about 35 billion tons of CO2, the nonprofit believes it is a steppingstone for its expansion to megaton removal capacity by the second part of this decade.

The factory is the first direct air capture and storage service with a validated process - awarded mid-June 2021 by independent third-party DNV.

With a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that the world could see more frequent extreme weather events in the years to come due to global warming, experts have stressed on the importance of reducing greenhouse gas levels drastically and removing carbon dioxide emissions from the air permanently.

Construction of the Orca plant began in May 2020 based on advanced modular technology, Climateworks says, adding that innovative container-size compact air collector units were stacked together to build the factory.

Due to its strategic location adjacent to ON Power’s Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant, Orca runs fully on renewable energy.

“This has made it possible for Orca to be operational in under 15 months. Compared to the previous technology generation, the use of steel in the collector units has been reduced by roughly half per output unit,” it noted in a statement.

According to Climeworks, the technology can easily be replicated at different locations worldwide and on ever larger scales, in a flexible manner wherever ample renewable energy and storage conditions are available.

The nonprofit says its advanced technology is optimised to capture more CO2 capture capacity per module than ever before, helping the factory store unprecedented levels of the greenhouse gas.

It believes the innovation in its plant design can help scale up this climate technology in the years to come and ramp up its capture capacity significantly.

While investment is pouring into companies developing carbon capture solutions to tame global warming, climate experts have also highlighted the drawbacks of these technologies, describing expectations placed on them as “seriously over-optimistic”.

“Orca, as a milestone in the direct air capture industry, has provided a scalable, flexible and replicable blueprint for Climeworks’ future expansion,” Christoph Gebald, co-CEO and co-founder of Climeworks, noted in a statement.

“Achieving global net-zero emissions is still a long way to go, but with Orca, we believe that Climeworks has taken one significant step closer to achieving that goal,” Mr Gebald added.

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