Air-Scrubbing Machines Gain Momentum, But Long Way to Go
AppleMagazine|November 12, 2021
On a field ringed by rolling green hills in Iceland, fans attached to metal structures that look like an industrial-sized Lego project are spinning. Their mission is to scrub the atmosphere by sucking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it safely underground.

Just a few years ago, this technology, known as “direct air capture,” was seen by many as an unrealistic fantasy. But the technology has evolved to where people consider it a serious tool in fighting climate change.

The Iceland plant, called Orca, is the largest such facility in the world, capturing about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

But compared to what the planet needs, the amount is tiny. Experts say 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide must be removed annually by mid-century.

“Effectively, in 30 years’ time, we need a worldwide enterprise that is twice as big as the oil and gas industry, and that works in reverse,” said Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Leading scientific agencies including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that even if the world manages to stop producing harmful emissions, that still won’t be enough to avert a climate catastrophe. They say we need to suck massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and put it back underground — yielding what some call “negative emissions.”

“We have already failed on climate to the extent to which direct air capture is one of the many things we must do,” Friedmann said. “We have already emitted so many greenhouse gases at such an incredible volume and rate that CO2 removal at enormous scales is required, as well as reduction of emissions.”

As dire warnings have accelerated, technology to vacuum carbon dioxide from the air has advanced. Currently, a handful of companies operate such plants on a commercial scale, including Climeworks, which built the Orca plant in Iceland, and Carbon Engineering, which built a different type of direct air capture plant in British Columbia. And now that the technology has been proven, both companies have ambitions for major expansion.

DIRECT AIR CAPTURE AT WORK

At Climeworks’ Orca plant near Reykjavik, fans suck air into big, black collection boxes where the carbon dioxide accumulates on a filter. Then it’s heated with geothermal energy and is combined with water and pumped deep underground into basalt rock formations. Within a few years, Climeworks says, the carbon dioxide turns into stone.

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