Climate change arguably boils down to a problem of too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping “greenhouse” gas, which is released through human activities such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels. Just imagine if there was a giant vacuum that sucked the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turned it into stone, depositing it safely into a remote part of Iceland. Sounds like the stuff of sci-fi films, right? Wrong. Swiss carbon capture startup Climeworks founded by University buddies Jan and Christoph have been busy developing a pioneering tech that could dramatically help to reverse climate change. Let’s take a look…
Innovations Fuelled by Climate Change
How did Climeworks begin, what’s the story?
The inspiration for Climeworks goes back almost two decades. Our two co-founders Jan and Christoph met on their first day of university at ETH Zurich and quickly became friends. Besides their love for engineering they both share a passion for alpine sports and spent a lot of time in the Swiss Alps. Here, they experienced the effects of climate change first hand. Shocked by the retreat of the glaciers, they vowed to do everything they can to tackle climate change – one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced.
Jan and Christoph committed themselves to creating a solution that empowers everyone to act. Being engineers at heart they focused on what they did best: develop a technology. During their PhDs, they researched how to capture carbon dioxide from the air, continued as entrepreneurs and founded Climeworks in 2009 as an ETH spin-off. Now, 10 years later, Climeworks is the world’s leading direct air capture company and provides a solution that empowers everyone to be climate positive by removing carbon dioxide from the air.
Have you found governments and large-scale businesses open to adopting carbon removal solutions? What has the attitude been like?
Businesses and governments with a genuine desire to reach net zero or even net negative emissions have been very positive. They recognise that direct air capture is one solution to help them reach that goal.
The interest in direct air capture as a carbon dioxide removal solution is steadily increasing. Just recently, financial services company Stripe has spent $1 million on four carbon dioxide removal projects, the Climeworks solution being one of them. Also, Climeworks has been recognized as a Technology Pioneer 2020 by the World Economic Forum.
Multiple climate studies published recently (IPCC Special Report, EASAC, NAS) clearly state that in order to achieve climate targets, not only do we need to do everything we can to reduce emissions; we also need to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.– Climeworks
Leading studies indicate that by mid-century ca. 10 billion tons of CO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere every year. Direct air capture is one way of doing so. In order to scale direct air capture up to these levels, we need to start today.
You currently have 15 machines in operation across Europe, what has the reaction been from the USA, China and rest of world?
It’s true that some countries are taking the challenge of tackling climate change and reducing CO2 more seriously than others, but in every country, there are companies and individuals stepping up to make a difference – regardless of their leaders’ leanings.
Almost ironically, Trump’s decision to step back from the Paris Agreement has in fact increased interest in our technology.
Since the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement, another unexpected side effect is that more high-net-worth individuals are taking greater responsibility for the planet.– Climeworks
Achieving Net Zero
How many machines would you need to sell to bring the carbon levels to net zero?
One measure alone will not be sufficient to meet climate targets: we are not at a point where we can chose either / or. We need all solutions working together. We need traditional carbon-mitigation methods (switching to renewables, electrifying, increasing energy efficiency) to reduce emissions and on top of that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, using multiple different approaches, direct air capture being one of them.
One decade ago, Climeworks was capturing just a few milligrams of CO2 per day. Today we are capturing thousands of tons a year – a scale-up of factor 1 billion (from small-scale laboratory experiments to large-scale commercially operating DAC plants). The challenge now is to replicate a comparable scale-up in the next years in order to make the climate-relevant impact we are aiming for.
In our current facilities, we can produce 150 collectors per year with total annual capture capacity of 7’500 tCO2. As we begin mass production, this will increase.
Climeworks’ vision is to inspire 1billion people to remove CO2 from the air. In order to do this, we recently launched our carbon dioxide removal subscription service. Everyone can choose a level of climate-positive action that matches their lifestyle. The subscription will start immediately, and we will remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it permanently. Each year, we will send a confirmation of the amount of carbon dioxide removal our subscribers have enabled. No middle-men, no unintended side effects: easy and direct climate action.
In addition, we are constantly in search of further strong partners and customers to join us in our fight against climate change. Climeworks alone cannot reverse climate change without a strong network of partners.
Does Carbon Capture Have Negative Side Effects?
Could putting carbon back into the ground have any negative long-term effects?
We work with our partner Carbfix to turn the collected CO2 to stone, thus creating a permanent and safe storage solution for air-captured CO2. Carbfix has demonstrated that over 95% of CO2 captured and injected at the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant is mineralized within two years. The remaining 5% turns into stone shortly thereafter.
The pioneering process of turning carbon dioxide into stone is safe. It happens through a combination of carbon dioxide capture from the air and rapid underground mineralization – a natural process whereby the carbon dioxide reacts with the basaltic rock to become solid calcite matter (another form of rock) within a few years. No weather conditions or fire can harm it or cause an outbreak of carbon dioxide: in this calcite form the greenhouse gas is removed from the atmosphere permanently and safely. The basaltic conditions at existing geothermal power plants in Iceland make it one of the best places to start the permanent storage of carbon dioxide.
There are, however, more places that can have ideal conditions. For example, the Icelandic Rift System with a capacity of 50 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. On a global scale studies have estimated an overall capacity of 30 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. Other suitable locations can be found in North America, the Middle East or China. You can learn more about the mineralization process that turns carbon dioxide into stone on the CarbFix website.
Looking To The Future
What’s your vision for the Climate Crisis five years from now?
Climeworks is in it for the long run. We want to remove climate-relevant amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and thus do our part in reversing climate change. By climate relevant we mean capturing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity needs to remove around 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year by mid-century.– Climeworks
We believe direct air capture can play a significant role in achieving this. And we need you to make this happen! Together, we can inspire 1 billion people to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Together, we can build a climate-positive future for generations to come. Let’s act now!
Do you have any other innovations in the pipeline?
We have recently agreed a joint venture with Sunfire GmbH, the world’s leading PtL-technology provider; Paul Wurth SA (SMS group), a leading international EPC company for steel manufacturers; and the green investment company Valinor, parent company of Norsk Vind, the largest private wind power developer in Norway.
Together we are working to produce a jet fuel made from renewable resources. At present, the European transport sector is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Especially for hard-to-electrify sectors such as the aviation industry, this new joint project holds the promise of a radical change towards climate-neutral transportation.
Using a single step co-electrolysis process, the innovative technologies of Sunfire and Climeworks convert renewable electricity, water, and CO2 captured from ambient air and unavoidable CO2 sources, into syngas. Renewable fuels, such as jet fuel, are then produced through further processing and refining. The certified end products can be used directly in existing infrastructures.
The potential for this project is staggering. It makes the supply of renewable fuel possible on a scale that is larger than has ever been achieved before – something that is crucial if we are to make global transportation truly sustainable.– Climeworks on new innovations
As Lars Helge Helvig, Founder of Valinor and Chairman of Norsk Vind, says; “To put this in perspective, one industrial scale plant will provide enough blended renewable fuel for the top five domestic aviation routes in Norway combined (Oslo-Trondheim, Oslo-Bergen, Oslo-Stavanger, Oslo-Tromso and Oslo-Bodo). This would effectively cut the current flight emissions between these cities by about 50 %.” The first plant with a production capacity of 10 million litres annually will go into operation in 2023.
This plant will be upscaled 10-fold to produce 100 million litres of renewable fuel before 2026. The Herøya plant will then save 250,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from industries, such as the aviation industry, every year. The upscaled, industrial sized plant will then serve as blueprint for a nationwide roll-out of the project.
Climeworks has been selected, among hundreds of candidates, as one of the World Economic Forum’s “Technology Pioneers”. Past recipients include Airbnb, Google, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Palantir Technologies, Spotify, TransferWise, Twitter and Wikimedia. Climeworks provides a potential solution to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the air, thereby enabling a climate-positive world. It’s thrilling to hear about such pioneering technology in the making. Jan and Christoph are game-changers, reversing Climate Change and forging the way to a better future.
From great adversity comes even greater innovation.