Scientists monitor a mesocosm—an experimental enclosure—off the coast of Norway to see how seawater absorbs carbon dioxide from alkaline materials. “The question is, can we significantly speed up that natural process?” says project leader Ulf Riebesell.
Below Article is taken from
Naional Geographic Magazine - November 2023 issue
THE RACE TO SAVE THE PLANET
BY SAM HOWE VERHOVEK
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 18, 2023
Over the past few centuries, we have dug, chopped, burned, drilled, pumped, stripped, forged, flared, lit, launched, driven, and flown our way to adding 2.4 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide to Earth’s atmosphere.
That’s as much CO2 as would be emitted annually by 522 billion cars, or 65 cars per person living today.
On a lonely, lunar-like valley 20 miles outside of Reykjavík, Iceland, Edda Aradóttir is on a mission to put it back where it came from.
12 promising carbon removal strategies
She’s returning a tiny bit of it today but much, much more of it in the years ahead. In sending CO2 deep beneath the surface of the planet, she’s aiming to reverse one of the most consequential acts of human history: the unearthing of massive amounts of subterranean carbon as fossil fuels, the lifeblood of modern civilization but now its bane as well.
She doesn’t have much time. Nor do the rest of us. The extreme weather and record-hot temperatures from climate change are already here—and virtually certain to get worse.
Inside an aluminum igloo on this patch of volcanic dirt, Aradóttir—a chemical and reservoir engineer who is chief executive officer of an Icelandic company called Carbfix—shows me how captured CO2 is mixed with water, then fed through an elaborate system of pipes that course downward 2,500 feet or so. There, the dissolved carbon dioxide meets porous basalt, creating a stippling of cream-colored speckles in the igneous rock below.
She hands me a sample core to inspect. All those dots and stripes represent an ambition that is simple but breathtakingly audacious, because minuscule as the amount may be, this particular bit of CO2—plucked from the air, mineralized, and turned to stone—is no longer heating up our planet.
A light attached to a drone illuminates a geodesic aluminum igloo on a massive lava field near Reykjavík in this composite image. Inside, the Icelandic company Carbfix is turning captured carbon dioxide into stone—considered a gold standard for CO2 sequestration, since it’s essentially permanent storage.
Vaxa Technologies uses carbon emissions from the Hellisheiði power plant near Reykjavík, Iceland, to help grow microalgae for use as food or supplements. Aquaculture that absorbs CO2 could be a significant step toward decreasing the enormous carbon footprint of food production.
Scientists and entrepreneurs like Aradóttir are embarking on ambitious—and sometimes controversial—projects to remove carbon dioxide from ambient air and lock it away. In Arizona, an engineering professor shows me his “mechanical tree,” a single one of which he says may someday be able to do the work of a thousand regular trees in capturing and storing CO2. In Australia, a leading oceanographer tells me that seaweed is salvation, if only we’d help it grow in giant aqua-gardens of kelp and wakame that could harbor billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Atop a university building in Zürich, an Uruguayan inventor with a gleam in his eye presents me with a small vial of fuel made from nothing but sunlight and air. That may be the most intriguing of all the forms of carbon capture I’ve come across, as it suggests we may one day be able to harness carbon in a continuous virtuous cycle of zero-emission energy. Maybe. One day.
What these efforts have in common is that they are geared in the long run to drag downward a number that climate experts agree holds the key to the health of the planet. That number is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which for thousands of years had held stable at or a bit below 280 parts per million, until the industrial revolution kicked off in the middle of the 19th century. Today this critical number stands at some 420 parts per million—in other words, the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen roughly 50 percent since 1850. As it rises, the added carbon traps heat, causing the Earth to warm to increasingly dangerous levels. Carbon-capture proponents say that their work—to capture the main driver of climate change, radically scaled up in coming decades—will help bring this number down.
But what all these efforts also have in common is that to their many detractors, the very idea of sucking all this carbon out of the air is a diversion from the far more urgent task of radically cutting carbon dioxide emissions to begin with.
More than 500 environmental groups, for instance, have signed a petition urging U.S. and Canadian leaders to “abandon the dirty, dangerous myth of CCS,” or carbon capture and storage, a major form of carbon removal. The petition blasts the concept as “a dangerous distraction driven by the same big polluters who created the climate emergency,” a reference to plans announced by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other traditional oil giants to jump into the carbon-capture business. It is enraging, critics say, that the forces most responsible for getting us into this global mess now stand to profit from promises that they can clean it up.
The term “moral hazard,” the idea that people will continue to take risks if they believe they’re shielded from the consequences, comes up often in this debate. If policymakers, not to mention average people, start thinking that maybe we have a magic solution for all this troublesome CO2, perhaps they’ll start worrying less about the oil, gas, and coal we keep extracting from the Earth. But carbon-removal advocates say we desperately need to do both things at once: cut future emissions and reverse the impacts of what we’ve already emitted.
With cooling towers each large enough to hold London’s Big Ben tower inside, the United Kingdom’s mammoth Drax Power Station is transitioning from burning coal to relying on biomass wood pellets. Eventually, says its parent company, the Yorkshire facility will capture CO2 from smokestack emissions and route it to giant storage reservoirs under the North Sea. But critics question whether Drax’s burning of “renewable” wood, mainly from North American forests, is any better for the environment than burning coal.
“It’s very clear to me that this is a solution to the problem, even if it’s not the solution,” Aradóttir says. “Basically, we are going to have to do this on top of everything else the world must do to decarbonize all the energy we use.”
Or, as Matthew Warnken, chair of an Australian company, Corporate Carbon, put it to me: “People ask me all the time, ‘Wow, is this a silver bullet for the problem of climate change?’ And I say no, it’s not. But it is silver buckshot—and we’re going to need it.”
Warnken’s assertion stems from projections by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that any realistic pathway to dealing with the climate emergency must include carbon removal on a vast scale. To keep global temperature from increasing above a critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels will require achieving carbon neutrality and removing as much as 12 billion metric tons of CO2 annually by mid-century.
That is a staggering challenge: We add three times that much in greenhouse gas emissions in a single year.
Nearly all CO2 now sequestered comes from nature and conventional nature-based solutions like planting trees and changing farming practices to improve soil’s carbon retention. For now, whiz-bang technology like the “direct air capture” plant that traps the carbon dioxide Carbfix shoots underground in Iceland counts for just 0.1 percent of CO2 removal.
Planting and tilling will not be enough to address this crisis, says the IPCC, especially since they could take up land and water needed to grow food. Yet the technology of carbon removal remains inordinately expensive and unproven at any kind of mass scale, even though the basic concept has been around for a while. Like cold fusion or green hydrogen, it is a moon shot that has never really gotten off the launchpad.
An employee at the U.K.’s Drax power plant holds wood pellets, now the principal source of the facility’s biomass-to-energy production. A shovel once used to load coal—the plant’s previous energy source—looms in the background.
Climeworks’ direct-air-capture plant in Iceland—the largest such facility in the world—removes 4,000 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. That’s equivalent to annual emissions from some 500 homes—not much now but groundwork for the future.
But now the industry has begun attracting serious money, which those involved say will propel the research and development needed to bring down the cost of direct air capture and other forms of carbon removal. Climeworks, the Swiss company that runs the CO2-trapping plant in Iceland in conjunction with Carbfix, secured $650 million from investment firms earlier this year, the largest such private investment the burgeoning industry has seen so far. The company’s corporate customers—including Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and the payment systems firm Stripe—are eager to purchase verified “offsets” that enable them to claim they’re operating their businesses on a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative basis.
Climeworks’ co-founder, Jan Wurzbacher, says direct-air-capture technology will plummet in price, just as the cost of solar panels and wind turbines has dropped in recent years. Built in modular units, each the size of a standard shipping container, his company’s devices can be widely transported by ship, rail, or truck and fit together as neatly as Lego blocks at their final destination.
“This is very doable, from a practical point of view, to get to a point where you are really helping to address the problem,” explains Wurzbacher, a German-born mechanical engineer who came to Switzerland as a college student and stayed put.
“There is no reason you could not build hundreds of thousands, millions, of these units. Now, is there a moral hazard? Maybe. But what can we do about that? Maybe 20 years ago it was an either-or proposition. But now it’s a both-and. It’s an all-hands situation.”
Wurzbacher’s goals for how much carbon his company will remove by direct air capture are bold. One megaton annually, or a million metric tons, by 2030; 100 megatons by 2040; by 2050, one gigaton—a billion metric tons—a year. At today’s prices, Climeworks’ annual revenue would be more than double that of Apple. But Wurzbacher says the comparison is not apt, because he expects the costs per metric ton of cleaning the air to drop precipitously.
Climeworks’ Iceland facility, the world’s first commercial carbon dioxide–removal plant, uses a system of giant fans and filters to trap the CO2, all powered by geothermal heat, a fact that serves to highlight one of the technology’s limitations, at least in its current state. Direct-air-capture projects must run on clean renewable power—otherwise they would wind up emitting almost as much carbon as they remove from the atmosphere.
An offshore rig called the Transocean Enabler drills injection wells more than a mile below the North Sea, creating a network of subsea reservoirs able to absorb 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to the emissions of about 320,000 cars.
With a mop of brown hair and a restless air giving him an early-Beatles vibe that belies his 40 years, Wurzbacher personifies the youthful optimism common to many carbon-removal start-ups. Perhaps a bit of the impishness, as well. Speaking in London a few years ago, Wurzbacher threw several 10-pound trash bags on the stage to illustrate a point. Dumping his trash wherever he wanted would be the easiest and cheapest way to deal with it, he told the crowd, but society long ago decided it would be inappropriate, so we pay more to collect and dispose of it properly. Greenhouse gases should be no different, he concluded, except that humanity has generally allowed these emissions to go untaxed, unmitigated, and unpunished.
Now, there is a value to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: Like any other product in the market, it’s what individual consumers and corporations are willing to pay. And some polluters are willing to spend big. Anytime you hear of a major airline pledging to become “carbon-neutral” by 2030 or 2040, it’s certainly not expecting that its jet engines will magically stop emitting CO2 by that date. Instead, it’s planning to buy carbon offsets from companies like Climeworks and Carbfix.
But as important as that money is for spurring R & D, it’s a minute fraction of what would ultimately be needed to make a genuine difference in reversing or at least slowing climate change. That figure would likely be measured in the trillions of dollars, amounting to one of the largest industrial undertakings in all of history. In the words of the science fiction author-philosopher Kim Stanley Robinson, reclaiming our carbon emissions from the air around us will amount to nothing less than a “civilizational project.”
Read the full findings at
Naional Geographic Magazine - November 2023 issue
THE RACE TO SAVE THE PLANET
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