The recently opened Orca facility in Iceland has been pointed to as the future of carbon capture and storage technology. What is different about Orca, and how viable is this technology as part of the solution to the climate crisis?

Source: ClimeWorks (2021)

The term ‘carbon capture’ refers to the process of capturing and reusing or storing carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. The term has been associated with often vague proposals for strategies to reduce net carbon emissions without eliminating fossil fuels from the energy mix. However, there is a new reason to be excited about ‘carbon capture’. On 9 September, the world’s largest carbon capture and storage plant started operating in Iceland. At the ceremony marking the opening of the plant, the Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir declared, “this almost sounds like a science fiction story” but “this is indeed an important step in the race to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, which is necessary to manage the climate crisis”.

The new carbon capture and storage plant is called Orca, from the Icelandic orka, meaning energy. It was built by Swiss company Climeworks using technology from the Icelandic business Carbfix. When it is functioning at capacity it will extract 4,000 tonnes of carbon annually from the atmosphere. “Orca, as a milestone in the direct air capture industry, has provided a scalable, flexible and replicable blueprint for Climeworks’ future expansion. With this success, we are prepared to rapidly ramp up our capacity in the next years”, declared Jan Wurzbacher, co-CEO of Climeworks.

Orca combines cutting-edge technologies to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground. It also makes use of local geothermal power plants to provide the energy required. In the plant, large fans move air into a collector containing filter material, in which the carbon dioxide binds to other molecules. Once the filter material is full, the collector is closed. The temperature is then increased, to release carbon dioxide from the material which then releases highly concentrated gases containing the carbon dioxide. Through a process developed by Carbfix, these gases are then mixed with water, before being injected into nearby rock 1,000 metres underground. The carbon dioxide-water mixture reacts with the volcanic basalt rock to form calcium carbonate, turning to hydride of sulphur (HS2) within four months. Trials show that Icelandic basalt can sequester carbon dioxide in solid rock in about two years.

BBC News report on Orca (9 September 2021)

When carbon dioxide is stored underground it counts as negative emissions. Carbon capture and storage therefore has a crucial role to play in mitigating global warming, as although we are reducing the quantity of emissions, that is not enough to ensure global temperature peaks at 1.5°C warmer. The Economist comments: “to stop temperatures rising by 1.5°C or even 2°C above pre-industrial averages, as per the Paris climate agreement, hundreds or thousands of billions of tonnes of CO2 will have to be removed from the atmosphere in the second half of the century.” Currently the only practicable method of removing carbon from the atmosphere is planting trees. However, this can be problematic, as trees burn in wildfires or get cut down, releasing the stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Natural ways of removing CO2 are generally less desirable than long-term geologic storage through BECCS [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage] or DAC [direct air capture],” observes Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at non-profit Berkeley Earth.

Pumping carbon dioxide into the ground, as described above, is not the only available method of disposal: energy companies can mix it with hydrogen to make fuel and farmers can feed plants with it. Manufacturers can use recycled carbon dioxide to carbonate drinks; this might be particularly useful given the shortages of carbon dioxide prevalent throughout the UK in 2021. Using recycled carbon dioxide could be a useful ‘fix’ for the carbonation industry as well as providing another disposal method for carbon capture companies.

Seeing carbon capture and storage technology in action is very exciting as it could hold the key to effective carbon emission reduction strategies. Climeworks’ co-CEO Jan Wurzbacher has suggested that Orca “really [is] the next step up’ when compared to previous projects (Climeworks has already built several smaller, less complex plants in mainland Europe which recycle carbon rather than permanent storage). The International Energy Agency’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’ report observed that one of the three areas of biggest opportunity for sustainable innovation was that of direct air capture and storage. Additionally, the IEA noted that by 2050 as a society we will need to annually extract nearly a billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct air capture technologies, to meet carbon neutral goals. However, relying too heavily on carbon capture and storage technologies will be dangerous and does not provide an automatic antidote to the climate crisis. Focussing too intently on carbon-removal technologies could distract from the immediate work of reducing current emissions. CEO of Swiss Re Group, Christian Mumenthaler remarked at the unveiling of a strategic partnership of Swiss Re and Climeworks, that “to mitigate the risks of climate change, the world needs to scale-up carbon removal on top of, not instead of emission reductions.”

There are several obstacles that could limit projects like Orca becoming popularly adopted. “You’ve got these two companies [Climeworks & Carbon Engineering] that are ready to go today,” remarks Jennifer Wilcox, official at the US Department of Energy and expert in carbon capture technologies, cautiously. “But the question is, how do they get from thousands of tons to millions of tons? After that, of course, comes an even bigger question: Could they actually get to billions?” The estimated 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide Orca can extract from the atmosphere this year pales in comparison to the 33 billion tonnes of the gas the IEA estimates will be emitted worldwide this year. Furthermore, the operating costs involved with Orca are extremely high: it costs between $600-800 to sequester one tonne of carbon dioxide; Climeworks sells carbon offset packages for about $1,200 per tonne.

Stephen Pacala, director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, saysthat’s really the main problem, whether you can make it [carbon offset] cheap enough. And there’s reason to believe that it could be possible.” Co-director Gebald also believes prices could drop in the future. By 2030 prices could be at $200-300 per tonne rather than the current $1,200 as the technology gains headway and becomes more accessible to consumer markets. Orca has a long line of customers including Microsoft, Audi and 8,000 private individuals. Notably, Swiss Re recently committed to a strategic partnership with Climeworks and signed a ten year carbon removal deal worth $10 million. Climeworks commented,pioneering customers like Swiss Re and their long-term commitment prove that a market for measurable and permanent carbon dioxide removals already exists today and will grow significantly in the future”. It is this high demand for carbon offset that ensures Orca’s future and incentivises developers to build other carbon capture and storage plants.

Where does Orca sit in the wider carbon offset picture? It remains the largest carbon capture plant currently operating, however it may soon be eclipsed. The US dedicated $3.5 billion for four direct air capture hubs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the Senate on 10 August 2021. Furthermore, a firm called Carbon Engineering is developing a plant in America that aims to extract up to 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Many startups are theorising other carbon capture and storage technologies. Remora, based in Detroit, fits carbon capturing technology on semi-trailer trucks which absorbs vehicle emissions. Fitting the device to every semi-trailer truck in the US would cut 5% of all US emissions. Perhaps surprisingly, Elon Musk launched a new $100 million X-Prize on Earth Day 2021 (22 April), involving a four year global competition in which teams must “create and demonstrate solutions that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans, and sequester it durably and sustainably”. To win the prize, teams must demonstrate a working solution, model their costs and show a pathway to achieving a scale of gigatons per year in the future. We should look forward to the solutions devised by the teams: 2025 could be a crucial year in the development of the technology.

However, in order to make any meaningful difference the numbers of carbon capture and storage plants will need to be rapidly increased. The CEO of Carbon Engineering, Steve Oldham comments that in a successful mitigation scenario, we might be able to eliminate 70-80% of emissions by 2050. This would leave 20-30% of emissions needing to be extracted, amounting to about 10-12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. He judges that extracting such significant quantities of carbon dioxide, would require about 10,000 Carbon Engineering plants. “I think if the world sets its mind to it, we can produce many of these plants,” he said. “And we’ve done this in the past. Look at the way we scrambled for Covid vaccines…”

It is only natural to ask what is next for Climeworks now that Orca is up and running. Demand for the carbon offset provided by Orca has been so high that credits have almost sold out for its entire 12-year lifespan. This has hastened the development of a much larger plant, ten times the size of Orca. Co-founder and co-director Gebald remarked, “this plant that we have here is really the blueprint to further scale up and really industrialize.” Co-CEO Wurzbacher has indicated that this new plant will be completed in the next few years.

Rapid and widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage technologies in the coming years could make the ideal of significant carbon dioxide extraction from the atmosphere into a reality in the near future. The introduction of government subsidies to reduce the cost of these technologies would increase the ease with which projects such as Orca could be implemented. Providing subsidies for carbon capture and storage projects would also prove that the government was taking the climate crisis seriously, by supporting the development of key global industries and taking tangible actions to achieve a net-zero future. We should watch this space with interest!