A machine capable of removing 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year has just been switched on in Iceland. The plant – named Orca, after the Icelandic word for “energy” – is the largest carbon removal facility in the world, converting emissions into minerals that can be permanently stored deep underground.
Constructed by Swiss company Climeworks, Orca uses fans to draw air into eight large metal boxes. Highly selective filters inside these collector units then capture carbon dioxide on their surfaces.
Once the filters are full, the collectors are closed and the temperature is raised to between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit). This releases carbon dioxide, which can be collected as a highly concentrated gas.
Using technology developed by Icelandic firm Carbfix, this carbon dioxide is then dissolved in water and buried deep inside the basalt rock formations that lie underground. Over a period of about two years, the carbon in the solution is crystallized into carbonate minerals, which fuse with the rock and become permanently trapped.
“Climeworks’ agreement with Carbfix ensures the safe storage of the CO₂ through underground mineralization,” says the company on its website. “The underground basaltic rock formations in Iceland provide the ideal conditions for this process, providing a permanent solution for CO₂ storage.”
Orca is powered using fully renewable geothermal energy, supplied by the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant. Because of this, Climeworks claims that the facility’s “grey emissions” are kept to below ten percent. In other words, for every hundred tons of carbon that are captured, at least 90 percent is permanently removed and less than 10 percent is re-emitted.
The facility took just over a year to build and became fully operational on Wednesday, September 8. At present, Orca is able to remove a quantity of carbon roughly equal to the emissions released by 870 cars, though Climeworks hopes to increase the plant’s capacity over the coming years.
While carbon capture is seen by many as an important component of the global fight against climate change, others believe that the cost of building and operating plants like Orca make them unfeasible. According to Bloomberg, individuals who wish to reduce their environmental footprint can purchase carbon offsets from Climeworks for $1,200 per ton of carbon dioxide.
The company says it hopes to reduce this price to less than $200 per ton of carbon dioxide by the middle of the next decade when Orca is projected to reach full operational capacity. Doing so would make carbon offsets considerably more attractive to polluters, as the costs involved would be less than those incurred through the payment of penalty fines for high emissions.
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