Climeworks Orca - Carbon-Capture Plant

overall rating:

2

planets

David Wensil
11/30/2021
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As the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent, we’ve recently focused our efforts in reducing carbon emissions worldwide. However, according to the latest IPCC report, reductions alone won’t be enough to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. This is where new technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) come into play. With the ability to extract carbon dioxide from the outside air, companies are finally able to achieve negative carbon emissions. On September 8th, 2021, the world’s largest DAC was built in Iceland. Referred to as project Orca, it has the ability to capture 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. Relying solely on renewable energy and mostly recycled materials, the plant’s life cycle analysis shows an extremely transparent footprint. Yet, its scalability is still being undermined by certain requirements and geographical limitations. Due to these reasons, I believe project Orca deserves a sustainability rating of 2 planets. 

What it's made of:

2

The Orca Plant is mainly made up of concrete and a handful of metals that are roughly the size of four shipping containers. With the ability to capture 4ktCO2 per year, it has an extremely low carbon footprint of 15gCO2e per kg captured. If the company uses recycled materials however, they would be able to lower their emissions by 6g. In the event of recycling, the plants foundation and hall, which are made up of concrete and steel, account for 74% of emissions. The remaining emissions come from the collecting containers, process units, and spare parts. When combined, these consist of stainless steel, steel, aluminum, copper, plastic, and insulation. Aside from the carbon emissions, there are other environmental impacts associated with the use of these materials. For instance, steel production is responsible for 63-94% of freshwater eutrophication, human toxicity (cancer), and ecotoxicity of freshwater systems. Looking at all 16 environmental impacts combined, concrete is guilty for 32-70%, steel foundation 11-39%, stainless steel 18%, insulation 16%, aluminum 12%, copper and painting 4%, and plastics 2%. The last component worth mentioning is the adsorbent, which is responsible for separating the carbon from the ambient air. Amine silica is most commonly used as the adsorbent, because of its average performance in environmental impacts. However, it requires 17.4% of the world’s global production of ethanolamine and synthetic amorphous silica, which are currently in a market too small to match the much needed large-scale implementation of DAC technology. While the company does an excellent job of listing all the materials used in the life cycle of the Orca plant, the one thing that I would like to see is where they obtained these resources from and how much the technology costs. This way, Orca supporters can ensure other aspects of environmental sustainability are being considered as well such as social and economic implications.

How it's made:

1.5

The process for Orca to make carbon-free air is similar to that of a large soda machine. Fans found within the collector capture the outside air and pass it through the adsorbent filter material, which separates the carbon dioxide from the nitrogen and oxygen. Once the filter becomes fully saturated, the CO2 can be extracted in a concentrated form by heating it up to 100 degrees Celsius. From there, it gets mixed with water and injected nearly half a mile down, where it mineralizes with the basalt rock within a couple of years. Luckily for Orca, their energy needs are supplied by a nearby geothermal power plant that provides 100% carbon-free energy. It’s important to note however that the calculations for the carbon footprint mentioned in the previous section are contingent upon the use of renewable energy. And we all know the struggles that renewable energy currently faces such as limited resources, costs, and politics. Assuming society is able to move forward with clean energy, the next obstacle remains on the amount of land and water that is needed for DAC. It is estimated that 1.6 metric tons of water are required per metric ton of CO2. This could limit DAC’s potential as water is already a scarce resource. There is also a problem with location, as not every place has the geographical ability to pump carbonated water deep beneath the surface. This could induce seismic activity and lead to an increased risk of earthquakes. When all is said and done however, the Orca Plant’s independent life-cycle analysis shows that it can reach a net carbon dioxide removal efficiency of more than 90%. While there are some debate worthy issues associated with DAC technology, I would not give up on it just yet, especially with the amount of success that’s been achieved in Iceland.

Who makes it:

2.5

Two companies are responsible for ensuring that the Orca Plant is achieving its goal of reducing carbon emissions. The first company, Climeworks, came up with the technology and is thus in charge of the Orca’s collection process. The second company, Carbfix, deals with injecting the concentrated CO2 deep beneath the Earth’s surface. We’ll first take a look at Climeworks, which was created in 2009 by mechanical engineers Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher. With the purpose of creating a climate positive business, they currently allow people to purchase carbon reduction packages off their website, in hopes of inspiring one billion people to remove carbon dioxide from the air and reverse the effects of climate change. Just by spending a few minutes on their site, you can easily tell they care a lot about the environment. They showcase these feelings with all of their accreditation's listed on the website, descriptions of the leadership team, and blogs about sustainability. To date, Climeworks has an impressive 9,710 subscribers, but the one thing that I believe is missing from their website is the actual amount of carbon dioxide that has been removed from the air thus far. By including this number, it will allow consumers to keep track of the company's progress and give them the much needed praise they deserve. Carbfix on the other hand was created in 2007 by four partners including Reykjavik Energy, the University of Iceland, CNRS in Toulouse, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Their climate goals are similar to that of Climeworks, but instead of capturing the carbon, they mainly focus on storing it in a safe and permanent location through natural processes. They also work on a bunch of other projects spanning from geothermal energy all the way to waste management. The thing I enjoyed seeing the most on their website is the fact that they've successfully stored over 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, providing scientific research to back it up. Given the passion and commitment that these two companies have, I fully support their efforts in their fight against climate change and believe project Orca to be in good hands. 

Sources:

Deutz, S., Bardow, A. Life-cycle assessment of an industrial direct air capture process based on temperature–vacuum swing adsorption. Nat Energy 6, 203–213 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-00771-9
https://youtu.be/IIHnckc7r7o
https://climeworks.com/roadmap/orca
https://www.treehugger.com/direct-air-capture-pros-and-cons-5119399
https://www.carbfix.com/how-it-works
https://www.carbfix.com/proven