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I have always been a bit sceptical about the idea of tackling climate change by using machines to directly capture carbon dioxide from the air. Not just because we already have a wonderful way of doing that with trees, but because the costs per tonne are eye-watering.

However, many Fix the Planet readers, including Silvia Llaguno, Joe Carpenter and Chris Melvin, have emailed to ask how things are progressing with carbon capture and storage. It is a huge area. This week I am focusing on one Swiss company and a colossal expansion of its pilot project removing CO2 from the air in Iceland.

Like many of you, I am working from home due to the UK’s response to the coronavirus, so I’d also like to introduce you to the youngest member of the New Scientist team, Bibi the kitten.
This is Bibi. I figured more photos of cats wouldn't hurt in these strange times. Photo: Adam Vaughan

Why capture CO2 from the air, and how does it work?

Even if the world entirely decarbonises its energy, transport and industry systems – and we are a long way from that – meeting net-zero emissions targets will require some negative emissions technologies. That is where direct air capture comes in. Three firms, Carbon Engineering, Climeworks and Global Thermostat, are using fans to suck in CO2 from the air and absorb it using chemicals. Some of their facilities capture and store the CO2 underground, others are selling it on for use in other industries.

What's changing given the renewed interest in climate action?

“The last six months has been a hockey stick for direct air CO2 capture,” says Christoph Gebald at Zurich-based Climeworks, in a nod to the shape of the graph of temperatures over the past millennium. He mentions announcements by major companies – such as Microsoft committing to being carbon negative in a decade – and governments taking steps on net-zero goals. The big difference that makes is financial. “It changes the way investors see our company,” says Gebald, adding that recently Climeworks has found it easier to raise capital to keep funding plants.
Climeworks' facility in Iceland. Photo: Getty

What’s next then?

Some of that money will help fund expansion of the company’s pilot plant in Iceland. The current version, completed in 2017, captures about 50 tonnes of CO2 a year, dissolves it in water and transports it deep underground whereit reacts with the basalt there and turns into stone. Within the next year, the plan is to increase the capacity to 4000 tonnes a year by adding more of the company’s modular collector units, each roughly the size of a very small car (see photo below). Iceland has been picked for the expansion – rather than one of the firm’s 14 plants in mainland Europe – because it has the storage potential and a clean supply of heat for the capture process, from geothermal energy.

What’s holding back direct air capture?

The Iceland plans might be set back if the coronavirus outbreak hits the supply chains that feed its manufacturing facilities in Switzerland. But more broadly, as with any new technology, cost is the big thing. Capturing CO2 in large quantities costs about £600 a tonne, and more for smaller quantities, says Gebald. But the Iceland pilot project makes him think it should be possible to go cheaper. “I am very confident that direct air CO2 capture, currently being among the more expensive solutions to draw CO2 from the air, at some point will achieve cost parity with other methods,” he says. In the mid-term, costs of £100-250 per tonne could be achieved, he believes.

So how do they get there?

Optimising what existing facilities do is one option. Mass production is another. The company’s CO2 collectors are made by the firm in Zurich, but Gebald says he can see mass production in the future, perhaps elsewhere in Europe, or in China. Climeworks is also working with other companies, such as Svante in Canada, to share technology. And then there’s the scale thing. Iceland will “confirm the scaling works”, he hopes. One or two years after the Iceland expansion is complete, he is planning a facility that can capture 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. Gebald stresses that direct air CO2 capture isn’t a replacement for the likes of tree-planting, but something that will operate in parallel, and is particularly useful for parts of the world that don’t have the space for nature-based solutions.
One of Climeworks' modular 'collectors' on the left, in Iceland. Photo: Climeworks

MORE FIXES

1.
There has been a lot of debate about whether a post-coronavirus financial response could be used to turbocharge action on climate change. Fatih Birol at the International Energy Agency believes it is vital the stimulus is a green one. “This is a historic opportunity for the world to, on one hand, create packages to recover the economy, but on the other hand, to reduce dirty investments and accelerate the energy transition,” he said this week.

2.
Not exactly a Fix, but more an adaptation. The UK is proposing people should cut average daily water consumption by nearly a quarter by 2050, to cope with climate change and drought.

3.
Forecasts of oil demand have been downgraded for this year, with analysts Rystad Energy now predicting demand down 2.8 per cent in 2020 due to the coronavirus, from 99.9 million barrels per day to 97.1 million. But falling demand means falling prices, which may yet encourage consumption to go back up. There's also big potential for a stimulus-driven rebound when the virus crisis abates. So it isn’t yet clear-cut whether this will be a positive for climate change efforts.
Stay safe and keep washing those hands. In the meantime, if you've got more free time on your hands than usual, please feel free to drop me a line with future subjects and projects you'd like to read about.

Just email me on the address below to suggest an idea. You can message me direct on Twitter and Facebook too. 
Adam Vaughan

Chief Reporter, New Scientist
Email me at adam.vaughan@newscientist.com to get in touch
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