REYKJAVIK, Iceland — A short drive from Iceland’s capital, on a lava plateau blanketed with moss and grass, the earth exhales plumes of steam. In most places in the world, rocky landscapes present largely fixed, inert features. On this volcanic island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, the planet is visibly geologically alive.
The startup Climeworks and its partners are taking advantage of Iceland’s dynamic geology to capture and mineralize carbon dioxide, a key pollutant stoking climate change.
On Wednesday, the company announced a 10-year deal with Microsoft to offset 10,000 tons of the software giant’s CO2 emissions. Microsoft, which has vowed to become carbon negative by 2030, last year invested in Climeworks through its $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund and made an initial offset purchase. This is Microsoft’s first long-term agreement with a tech company for carbon removal.
Climeworks is a global leader in the space. In 2017, it was the first company to launch a commercial carbon-capture operation, based in its home country of Switzerland. In September 2021, Climeworks began operating its larger Orca facility near Reykjavik, with the capacity to draw 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air per year and pump it underground where it permanently binds to basaltic rock formations.
On a recent GeekWire visit to the Climeworks facility, excavators and other heavy equipment were beginning to prep a nearby site where the company is building a second, bigger plant in Iceland. Named Mammoth, it’s designed to annually capture 36,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas once completed in 2024.
Financial support like the deal signed by Microsoft is key, many say, to helping the carbon capture sector get established.
“Our experience in purchasing renewable energy shows that long-term agreements can provide an essential foundation for society’s race to scale new decarbonization technologies,” said Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa in a statement announcing the deal. The companies did not disclose how much the new offsets will cost.
The agreement “can help kickstart the commercial and technical progress in a nascent but crucial industry to achieve IPCC targets,” he added, referring to the U.N. organization guiding the world’s response to the climate crisis.
400 marbles out of a million
Climeworks’ technology is direct air capture (DAC), which means that it’s pulling CO2 straight out of the air, as opposed to efforts to suck up the gas generated by coal power plants, for example, where it’s more concentrated.
With carbon dioxide levels at roughly 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, DAC is like pulling 400 marbles of carbon out of a million marble pool, said David Heldebrant, a green chemist with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
“Climeworks is doing a very good job,” he said, “considering what they’re up against.”
Orca is a compact operation, covering less than 20,000 square feet in a treeless, windswept landscape. It features a modular design of eight cargo container-like compartments, stacked two-high. Each container is divided into six smaller compartments, each with two fans, that pull in outside air that passes through amine-based chemical filters that capture the CO2.
After about two hours the filter is full and a panel closes the smaller compartment. The enclosed space is heated up for 30 minutes, causing the filter to release the concentrated CO2 as a gas.
At Orca, Climeworks is partnering with an Icelandic company called Carbfix that mixes the gas with water, then pumps it underground into beds of basalt. Over a period of two years, nearly all of the carbon binds to the basalt where it remains indefinitely trapped. Climeworks is also pursuing alternate outcomes for the CO2, including carbon-neutral fuels and materials.
The company chose Iceland for its operations for multiple reasons. For one, nearly all of the nation’s electricity is clean, coming either from geothermal energy or hydroelectric dams. Climeworks sits adjacent to the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. For two, Carbfix already had some of the infrastructure in place for pumping the carbon underground, and there’s plenty of basalt available to bind it.
Catching carbon in Iceland
When GeekWire visited Climeworks in early July, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing a steady 22 miles per hour. In the winter, it blows twice as hard and gusts up to more than 60 miles per hour. Temperatures hover in the 30s and 40s. While Iceland has numerous positive attributes for carbon catching facilities, the weather isn’t necessarily one of them.
Part of Orca has been offline this summer while Climeworks workers are adjusting the devices and evaluating their performance during the first half-year of operation.
“With Orca, we have added real-world commercial operations to ongoing R&D efforts,” said spokeswoman Bryndis Nielsen.
The company did not disclose how much carbon has been captured since flipping on the fans in September, or how much electricity the plant is using.
Heldebrant said that’s par for the course among commercial carbon capture companies.
“They all have black-box technologies,” he said. For outside observers, “it’s hard to comment on the science, economics or cost.”
One thing is certain: the companies aren’t yet making a dent in the world’s carbon debt.
While Mammoth will capture nine-times the amount of CO2 that Orca draws in, it’s a tiny amount globally. Seattle’s annual per-person carbon emission rate, for example, is approximately 4.3 tons. So with a 36,000 ton capacity system, you would need 82 Mammoth plants to wipe out emissions for the one city’s residents.
The outsized scale of the problem has caused some critics to argue that DAC isn’t worth the effort, is much too expensive, and that focus should remain on cutting emissions in the first place.
Many experts, however, say that both actions are needed. The IPCC concludes that between 3-12 billion tons of carbon will need to be removed per year by mid century to combat the worst-case climate scenarios. Natural processes including photosynthesis, absorption by the oceans, and chemical reactions with rocks that mineralize carbon will help, but won’t be enough.
Climeworks has raised more than $800 million from investors, according to PitchBook, and it has huge ambitions to scale its technology. It aims to reach multimillion-ton capacity by 2030 and a billion-ton capacity by 2050. If those goals could be achieved, they could make a difference.
And luckily, Climeworks is not alone in its pursuit of carbon capture.
Funding and innovation heat up
Some 48 companies worldwide are tackling carbon removal, PitchBook reports, and they’ve raised nearly $5.8 billion in venture capital.
In addition to Microsoft’s new agreement, carbon removal support in the Pacific Northwest includes investments from Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which has so-far backed four companies in the sector: United Kingdom-based Mission Zero; San Francisco’s Heirloom; Verdox in Massachusetts; and Sustaera in North Carolina.
Notable carbon removal companies headquartered in the region include Carbon Engineering and Svante, both based in British Columbia. PNNL is working on carbon removal technology that pairs with industrial processes.
Looking more broadly, a group of businesses including Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey, and others in April created the $925 million Frontier fund to spend on carbon removal by 2030. In May, a group of companies including Climeworks plus nonprofits, universities and philanthropies formed a direct air capture coalition to support the field.
The U.S. government has launched numerous initiatives to remove atmospheric carbon, including $3.5 billion for direct air capture hubs.
Urgent action is needed, advocates said.
“When we look at the carbon removal market, we have a huge problem with scale. We just have to scale up. We need more volume in the markets,” Microsoft’s Joppa said at a recent carbon removal conference.
“We have to start getting going today,” he added. “We can’t sit around.”