An installation named ‘Orca’ is able to filter 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. But some environmentalists doubt carbon capture is a climate solution.

“Orca,” the world’s biggest facility to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and mineralise it into a rock, opened in Iceland on Wednesday.

Constructed by Switzerland’s Climeworks and Iceland’s Carbfix on a lava plateau in the southwest of the country, the facility uses fans, filters and heaters to capture carbon dioxide out of the air and transfer it to underground caverns. There, the gas mixed with water slowly becomes stone as it gets colder, and turns into a harmless carbonate. 

Meaning energy in Icelandic, Orca is able to pull 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year — equivalent to the emissions from about 870 cars, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Global CO2-emissions were 31.5 billion tonnes last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The carbon capture system was first tested in 2016 by Carbfix as a pilot project in Iceland. Because of global climate change, the country’s glaciers are melting but the small country has relatively small carbon emission. Developers of the project had a hard time testing the project in large quantities because there’s not that much CO2 in Iceland.

The project was able to attract high-profile investors including Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates and Tesla Inc’s Elon Musk.

“This is a market that does not yet exist, but a market that urgently needs to be built,” Christoph Gebald, a corkscrew-haired Swiss engineer who co-founded and co-directs Climeworks told Washington Post. “This plant that we have here is really the blueprint to further scale up and really industrialize.”

The controversy

Gebald and Juerg Matter, a geochemist now at the University of Southampton who began working on the CarbFix project, previously said their solution to tackle greenhouse gases is not “It’s not a silver bullet solution.”

Costs that are more expensive than conventional methods remain as the downside of the carbon capture and storage project. The latest plant, Orca, cost between US$10 and 15m to build, according to a Bloomberg report.

But the project developers point out an important advantage it has: Very little risk of gas leakage. That’s why it would require much less monitoring compared to conventional methods. They’re also hopeful that the prices will reduce as climate awareness will cause more companies and consumers to reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the partnering companies of the project plan to build a plant that is ten times larger than Orca in three years. 

Fifteen air capture plants around the world, directly capturing more than 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, according to the International Energy Agency.  

US oil firm Occidental is currently developing the largest direct-air-capture facility, to pull 1 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide from the open-air near some of its Texas oil fields.

Other CO2 utilisation solutions include combining hydrogen with CO2 to produce hydrocarbon fuels, injecting CO2 into oil wells, and crushing rocks and spreading them on land with aims to accelerate the formation of stable carbonate.

The project argues that it can create a renewable energy future. But some environmentalists are skeptical, citing its “dubious efficacy and practicality.” They argue that Carbon capture is not a climate solution and it is giving cover to fossil fuel companies that should bear responsibility. 

“Carbon capture schemes are unnecessary, ineffective, exceptionally risky, and at odds with a just energy transition and the principles of environmental justice,” a letter that hundreds of environmental groups addressed to the leaders of American and Canadian governments. 

“National strategies should focus on eliminating the use of fossil fuels and other combustible sources in our energy system, not simply reducing their emissions intensity.”

According to a 2020 report, 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of historical greenhouse gas emissions. 

Source: TRT World