Decarbonization or approaches to removing carbon from the atmosphere

While renewable energy, electrification and energy efficiency are the main initiatives on the way to global decarbonization, carbon removal technologies from the atmosphere take another step forward, allowing not only to avoid new emissions, but also to use existing ones.

The concept of processing carbon monoxide extracted from the atmosphere provides for the extraction of greenhouse gases in the process of industrial production or directly from the air, for their subsequent processing or use. Thanks to this initiative, with an increase in industrial production, CO2 emissions will be able to decrease, not grow. Many such technologies are based on the principles of synthetic biology and microbiome. 

The value of the global market of products created using recycled carbon is estimated at 6 trillion US dollars. Today, construction materials, plastics, textiles and carpet tiles are appearing on this market.

Environmental solutions in the field of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as regenerative agriculture, reforestation and afforestation, are aimed at restoring nature's ability to self-clean from emissions.

The removal of greenhouse gases makes us think about a more general problem of sustainable development: will it be enough to ensure zero net emissions? Technologies for removing emissions from the atmosphere help main enterprises polluting the environment to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality. However, for many international companies, the ability to capture and use carbon allows them to go even further and remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce. A number of corporations, including Microsoft, Ikea and AstraZeneca, have already announced their intention to reach a negative level of net emissions by extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

The world's largest plant designed to ”suck” carbon dioxide out of the air has started operating at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland. The factory called ”Orca” (that means ”energy” in Icelandic), built by Swiss startup Climeworks AG, will remove carbon from the atmosphere and inject it deep into the ground. Out of 16 installations built by Climeworks across Europe, Orca is the only one that completely gets rid of CO2, and does not recycle it. According to the authors of the authors of the development, when operating at full capacity, the plant will annually consume 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this corresponds to emissions from nearly 870 cars.

Orca draws in large amounts of air using huge fans, bringing the air into contact with chemicals that can selectively remove CO2 while simultaneously releasing nitrogen, oxygen and other gases back into the atmosphere. The carbon-rich chemicals are then heated to about 100ºC to release CO2 as a pure gas.

Installation mixes gas with water and injects it deep into the ground into basalt rocks. Dissolved CO2 crystallizes into a mineral in about two years, permanently removed from the atmosphere. The energy for all these steps comes from the Hellisheidi geothermal plant.

Reproducing this combination of factors – basalt rocks and cheap energy with zero carbon content – will not be easy elsewhere. It is possible to store CO2 in other geological formations, where they do not turn into rocks, just as it happens with oil and gas. But without zero-carbon energy, the process could generate more CO2 than it removes.

Initially, Climeworks planned to build a system that would capture more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide, which corresponds to about one percent of global CO2 emissions. In the future, these goals were adjusted, and now the company is focused on the goal of 500,000 tons by the end of the decade.

The main problem for Climeworks is the reduction of maintenance cost. The plant exists at the expense of investors, where each extracted one ton of carbon dioxide costs 1,200 US dollars.

Supporters of carbon capture and storage believe that these technologies can become an important tool in the fight against climate change. However, critics argue that the technology is still prohibitively expensive, and its large-scale use may take decades.