When it comes to protecting the Earth’s environment, one thing that scientists warn about is carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Currently, it’s estimated that the global average of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 0.04 percent, which has been blamed for some of the effects of global warming. One company is trying to reverse the growing numbers, however, and they’re doing it by sucking CO2 directly from the air.
Climeworks is a company in Switzerland founded in 2010 that has developed a facility that’s able to extract CO2, though it’s proven to be very expensive. At their facility, Climeworks has a total of 18 giant metal fans stacked up high that pull in air, using filters that absorb the air’s CO2. After a few hours, the CO2 becomes saturated once heated up and then pure CO2 gas is collected.
All in all, Climeworks is able to extract nearly 1,000 tons of CO2, and they’re using it to help grow vegetables within a nearby greenhouse. Due to the success of the operation, Climeworks says that similar practices can be used around the world, but it’s a costly procedure. Climeworks co-founder Jan Wurzbacher said “This is the first time we are commercially selling CO2; this is the first of its kind…It has to be for business; CO2 capture can’t work for free.”
So how much does it cost vegetable growers to purchase CO2? Right now, the price is listed at just under $600 for a ton, though Climeworks is hoping that’s a temporary number. The wishful thinking for the future is that an increase in production and technology can cause the price to drop significantly.
“The magic number we always say is $100 per ton,” Wurzbacher said. “We have drawn a road down to the region of $100 and that is something we think is feasible. We can do it by scaling up the mass production of our components. I’d say half of the way to go there – we know what to do.”
Another goal that Climeworks has as they expand on a global basis is producing an overall benefit for the environment. Over the course of the next few years, Climeworks wants to be able to extract one percent of global emissions. This will also have a positive effect on vegetation, as the CO2 is used to fertilize vegetables, increasing production by around 20 percent, all while cutting down on the use of trucks to deliver the collected CO2.
As of right now, even the small-scale production that Climeworks has is showing a difference, and is offsetting the carbon footprint of nearly 400 people. Other companies are taking notice around the world and setting up similar procedures in countries like the United States where emissions are high. Even in early returns, the numbers have been better than expected, and it could end up having long-term benefits on global temperatures.
Climeworks spokesman Martin Jendrischik says the US is certainly an area where they want to expand toward. “There are many other good basaltic systems around the world, including in the US, which could stores tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide,” he said.
A similar US-based company named Global Thermostat is trying to get ahead in the United States, saying that they can already get prices to around $50 per ton of CO2. Graciela Chichilnisky is the CEO of Global Thermostat, saying that “The cost is sufficiently low that it’s already profitable to ‘mine the atmosphere’ and sell CO2 for beverages, water desalination, polymers and other industrial uses.”
It would take around 300,000 of these plants to get one percent of the global emissions out of the atmosphere in a project that’s expected to cost more than $1 trillion. However, after the initial investment, production becomes incredibly cheap to the point where it costs almost nothing while still making money from CO2 sales. They’ve also flirted with the idea of using these facilities near plants that have high emissions such as coal plants, offsetting their emissions.
Some scientists warn that expectations need to be reeled in, with Christopher Field from Stanford University saying “This is an unacceptable gamble with the planet’s future…To the extent we can deploy carbon capture in the short term, we decrease the need to deploy massive amounts in the long term.”
Others, such as Dr. Glen Peters, though, see this as the way of the future. “We need to focus on getting things deployed that we know already work and at the same time we also need to focus on developing new technologies that will help us go the last part of the journey.” Either way, it looks like CO2 extraction is opening up a lot of new doors, both in business and in helping the environment.