For taking carbon-capture technology to a new level
Stripping carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere might seem like an obvious solution to thwart the chief culprit of climate change. Yet skeptics argue carbon capture and storage technology won’t make a dent in the problem unless it can be deployed on a massive scale. Climeworks is looking to quell the doubters: By building the world’s largest carbon capture plant, the Swiss company wants to prove the technology has the potential to dramatically reshape expectations—and impact.
Built on a barren expanse of moss-covered volcanic rock just outside Reykjavik, the facility includes an elaborate system of fans, filters and heaters to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and pump it into underground caverns, where it cools and eventually turns into an inert basalt stone. Construction on Orca—which means energy in Icelandic—began in May 2020, with the team relying on modular design to keep the schedule lean. And to deliver maximum sustainability, project leaders chose a site close to ON Power’s Hellisheiði geothermal plant, which allows Orca to run exclusively on renewable energy.
But the biggest achievement was in expanding capability. When Climeworks opened the world’s first commercial facility in Switzerland in 2017, it was designed to capture up to 900 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Orca’s direct air capture (DAC) system can catch as much as 4,000 metric tons annually—an amount that would increase the global capacity for carbon capture by 40 percent, per a report by E&E.
“It comes with some significant scale potential,” says Lucas Joppa, Ph.D., chief environmental officer at Microsoft, which invested in the Orca project. “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.”
But Orca—heralded as “a milestone in our fight against climate change” by
Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir—is just the start. By 2024, Climeworks plans to open a new plant, cheekily named Mammoth, with nine times the carbon capture capacity of Orca—gobbling up roughly 36,000 metric tons per year. Currently underway, the new project benefits from several lessons learned since Orca’s opening in September 2021—resolving what a Climeworks exec called teething issues for the nascent technology. When Iceland’s brutally cold climate and horizontal snowstorms caused the plant’s belt drives to freeze, for instance, the tech was temporarily paused while the team iterated its way to a solution: swapping the belt drives for chain drives.
With Orca as its flagship DAC facility, Climeworks is on track to have the capacity to capture a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year by 2050—which has prompted a wave of inspiration. In Scotland, Carbon Engineering and Storegga have launched a project to build a plant capable of capturing up to 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the first of its kind in the U.K. And in the United States, government leaders set aside US$3.5 billion in funding for projects to build DAC facilities.
Still, carbon capture naysayers persist, including 500 groups that signed an open letter to North American government leaders in 2021 charging that the tech gives cover to fossil fuel companies. For Climeworks co-founder Christoph Gebald, the uptick in carbon capture projects simply reflects the need for options—providing the world another weapon to fight climate change: “To achieve climate targets, we must not use the word ‘or’—we must only use the word ‘and.’”