The world’s largest carbon dioxide capture plant, ‘Orca,’ has been launched in Iceland. Developed by a Swiss company, Climeworks AG, in partnerships with Iceland’s carbon storage firm, Carbfix, the plant pulls carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and pumps it underground. This comes with a worldwide increase in environmental consciousness and sustainability measures to protect the natural ecosystem against degradation and depletion.
Climeworks initially opened the first commercial carbon capture facility in the world in 2017 near Zurich, Switzerland. This direct air capture (DAC) plant could capture and package about 900 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually. They would then sell the captured gas to carbonated beverage producers, synthetic fuel manufacturers, and greenhouses to help grow vegetables. Together with 15 other DAC plants operating worldwide, they could capture over 9,000 tons of CO2 annually.
Today, Orca alone captures 4,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, making it the largest carbon capture plant in the world. This amount of CO2 is equivalent to what 790 cars emit annually. According to research, improving air quality is one of the best ways to improve humans’ health and wellness.
Orca: World’s Largest Carbon Capture Plant
The Orca plant is named after the Icelandic word ‘orka,’ which stands for ‘energy.’ Built on a lava plateau in Hellisheidi, the southwest region of Iceland. The plant consists of stackable collector units of carbon dioxide built using a modular system. There is a total of eight stackable container-sized units at the Orca plant. It took Climeworks 15 months to build the plant.
The plant has been running since the 8th of September, 2021. It has helped increase Earth’s annual carbon dioxide capture to a total of 13,000 metric tons, up from 9000 metric tons, which is a 40% increase in the total Earth’s annual carbon capture. Climeworks founders plan to build a larger plant that is ten times bigger than Orca to capture more than 500,000 metric tons of CO2 from the air in the next three years.
According to Climeworks’ co-founder and co-CEO Jan Wurzbacher, Orca’s blueprint is scalable, flexible, and replicable. The plant is arguably the first and largest climate-positive plant globally that captures and stores carbon dioxide directly from the air to create greener energy.
Orca uses geothermal energy to operate its fans, filters, and heaters and pull carbon dioxide directly from the air. Once the gas is filtered, CO2 is then pumped into underground caverns, mixed with water, turning it into rocks through a mineralization process as it cools off. These CO2 rocks are then buried deep underground using Carbfix’s storage technology.
Problems With Direct Air Capture
The biggest issue with DAC, of which the Orca plant isn’t exempt, is cost. According to Christoph Gebald, Climeworks co-founder, the cost of removing one metric ton of carbon from the atmosphere is estimated to range between $600- $800. Christoph believes Climeworks can get this cost down to around $200- $300 per metric ton of carbon by 2030, with a possibility of even achieving half of this by 2040.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, for the air-captured commodity to be economically competitive against the traditionally sourced oil, the cost of extracting a metric ton of carbon dioxide should come down to a range of between $100-$150. DAC technology companies believe that automation and increased energy efficiency can help drive down costs.
The other challenge cited has been the amount of energy used to capture a unit of carbon dioxide. The facilities tend to use way too much energy and, therefore not likely to make a huge impact. While the energy used comes from natural renewable sources, it is still not free or unlimited.
The Direct air capture technique used by Orca is still relatively new. It uses chemical reactions to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is a departure from the other methods commonly used to capture CO2 emissions at the source.
Critics have argued that the focus on carbon dioxide capture and storage is a distraction from real policy measures necessary in the fight to curb climate change. In an open letter signed by hundreds of environmental groups to Canadian and American governments, they argued that carbon capture covers fossil oil companies as a climate change solution. They believe the focus should be on eliminating combustible and fossil fuels from the energy system altogether, not reducing the intensity of their emissions.
The world is still a long way from achieving net-zero carbon emissions. We will need to capture at least a metric ton of carbon dioxide every year using DAC to hit the target. However, this climate-positive plant is a significant move towards achieving that zero-emissions goal.