Scientists from all over the world have been ringing the alarm bells for quite some time. Even back in 1968, the Stanford Research Institute warned the Americain Petroleum Institute of the severe consequences that burning fossil fuels generates. Nowadays, 50 years later, we only have a limited amount of time left to change the tide. What do you think? Are we able to reduce the use of fossil fuels to reach an emission-free future? And what if we keep emitting carbon dioxide and other harmful gases?
One of the powers of mankind is its problem-solving ability. If we can’t reach the target of becoming emission-free in time, something else needs to happen.
What about industrial extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?
Our atmosphere contains several gases: nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%) and argon (0.9%) . This leaves only a small percentage (0.1%) for damaging greenhouse gases. Actually, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air nowadays is 0.004% (405 ppm). This seems quite diluted… So, how to catch and separate these molecules from our air?
This question is what motivated the scientists Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher. The two met while studying at the University of Zürich, back in 2003. During their master’s degree in, they started research on direct carbon capture from the air in the group of professor Aldo Steinfeld. In 2009, this resulted in the first prototype. The first step towards their direct air capture (DAC) technology and the formation of their company ‘Climeworks’.
The principle explained
Over the years Climeworks formulated a machine that can filter carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. With the use of ventilators, air gets sucked into the machine. The air flows through a filter, filled with porous granulates. The surface of these granulates are modified with amines. Amines are known to react with CO2. In that way, the carbon dioxide from the air chemically binds with the filter!
When the filter gets saturated – it’s heated to 100°C. This breaks the chemical bond again and releases the CO2, but in a controlled manner. The pure and concentrated carbon dioxide can then be gathered. Now, it’s separated from the air! The beauty of this process? The filters can be reused more than a 1000 times!
What to do with the gathered carbon dioxide?
In the end, this system provides concentrated carbon dioxide. But what to do with this gas after it has been gathered? It could be reused in industrial processes or, for example, in carbonated drinks. But in the end, the gas is released back into the atmosphere. So, this is not the most sustainable way forward.
Carbon dioxide is mainly formed by burning hydrocarbons, like fossil fuels (see my previous article). So technically speaking, most of the carbon dioxide originates from deep underneath our feet. In that case, why not put it back where it came from? For example: safely stored in empty oil- and gas wells. In that case, the Earth can store huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Just like it did before we started removing fossil fuels underneath its crust.
The ultimate goal
Climeworks is the first company that commercially captures carbon dioxide from ambient air. Over the last 2 years, Climeworks installed a few plants around Europe (Switzerland, Iceland, and Italy). The biggest plant consists out of 36 CO2-collectors and captures nearly 5000 kilograms of CO2 a day!
The company is on a mission is to capture 1% of the global carbon dioxide emission by 2025. That equals to a shocking total of 225 million tonnes of CO2! Still, some work needs to be done, but a beginning is made.
DAC-technology is a big milestone in the fight against climate change. Besides that, it’s also an area of controversy. As in any other business: money is the backbone. Removing carbon dioxide by an industrial process is an expensive way to fight climate change. Still, these ‘industrial trees’ may be a feasible answer towards a future with less atmospheric carbon dioxide!
The journey of the Climeworks and their mission can be followed via their website or social media channels.