ClimeworksOrca e1631544252282

How one company hoovers up carbon

One month after the startling IPCC report on climate change, the world’s largest carbon removal machine was launched last week in Iceland to suck up thousands of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Orca, a machine created by Zurich-based Climeworks, consists of stackable container-sized units next to the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant in southwest Iceland that can capture 4,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Powered by renewable energy from the plant, Orca uses a process where the captured carbon is mixed with water and pumped underground.

Through the process – developed by a company called Carbfix – carbon reacts to rock formations, forming stable minerals underground in less than two years.

Climeworks, which has previously partnered with companies like Microsoft on carbon capture technology, said that Orca demonstrates that large-scale carbon capture is possible and necessary.

Jan Wurzbacher, co-CEO and co-founder of Climeworks, said: “Orca, as a milestone in the direct air capture industry, has provided a scalable, flexible and replicable blueprint for Climeworks’ future expansion. With this success, we are prepared to rapidly ramp up our capacity in the next years.

“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.”

Why capture carbon?

In order to reach net zero emissions and rein in global warming, we need to cut the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The two main ways to do this are by reducing emissions and removing existing carbon in the air.

Given the urgency with which the world needs to make changes to keep global temperatures below the 1.5­ºC threshold, Climeworks has argued that cutting emissions is not enough.

The UN has estimated that 10bn tonnes of carbon will have to be removed from the atmosphere every year by 2050, rising to 20bn by 2100. That is the equivalent of installing 2.5m Orcas around the world (more if you consider that Climeworks estimates that its processes release up to 10% of the carbon emissions it removes).

Is it the right thing to do?

The rise of carbon capture has also led to sceptics who question whether it is doing more harm than good. The MIT Technology Review, for example, called the “hype” for carbon removal a “dangerous distraction” earlier this year.

One argument is that, much like focusing on offsetting, relying on carbon capture can distract from people, organisations and nations doing what they can to cut emissions in the first place.

After all, carbon removal is less effective than not releasing it: one study in Nature found that, for a number of reasons, CO2 emissions raised atmospheric CO2 more than removing the equivalent amount lowered it. In other words, offsetting a tonne of emitted CO2 by removing one tonne of CO2 fails to fully undo the effects of that emission.

However, Climeworks argues that its process is an additional tool to fight climate change, rather than an alternative to cutting emissions. If the world is to stop the planet from heating up, it needs every solution it can get.

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