On Wednesday in southwest Iceland, the Orca was inaugurated, the largest plant in the world for removing carbon dioxide (CO2), the main gas responsible for global warming. The Orca was built by the Swiss company Climeworks and will be able to absorb 4 thousand tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year: it will have a minimal impact to reduce the concentration of CO2, but according to various scientists it will serve as a model for the development of other technologies of this type, which in the future may help to combat climate change caused by human activities.
The Orca, which has the same sound as the Icelandic word for “energy”, is located in the geothermal park of Hellisheidi, a few tens of kilometers from the capital Reykjavik, and is powered by the energy produced by the local geothermal power plant. It was built within a few months, starting in December 2020, and is inspired by a pilot project installed in Iceland in 2017: consists of four suction systems, connected to eight containers, which allow to capture the carbon dioxide present in the air, which can then be destined for various uses.
Each system of “direct air capture” (Direct Air Capture, or DAC) is characterized by fans about one meter high which, to simplify, suck the air from the outside and convey it towards a particular absorbent substance, made up of microscopic granules, to which the CO2 it binds by chemical reaction. This filter is then heated to release carbon dioxide, which is added to the water and pumped underground, where cooling is petrified through a chemical process and remains safe.
The introduction of some types of gas into the subsoil is a rather common practice, for example to increase the pressure in the wells from which oil is extracted. Part of the CO2 absorbed with this system, however, it can also be transformed into fuel by adding it to hydrogen, or be stored in pressurized containers and sold to factories that produce carbonated drinks to make them sparkling, as also happens with part of the carbon dioxide treated at the Swiss plant in Hinwil, which was also built by Climeworks in 2017.
The goal of the company, which in 2018 had opened an experimental DAC plant also in Troia, in Puglia, is to “reverse climate change” and contribute to achieving the so-called “carbon neutrality”, or to be able to remove a lot of CO2 (or other greenhouse gases) as much as we put into the atmosphere.
La CO2 it is among the main culprits of the greenhouse effect, whose unnatural increase caused by human activities is the cause of global warming. Together with other gases, CO2 prevents the Earth from dispersing part of the infrared radiation it emits, leading to an increase in global temperature and increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather events, as well as the melting of glaciers and rising sea levels. The release of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased enormously over the past century due to various human activities, including the production of energy and the use of means of transport powered by fossil fuels.
According to the recommendations of the International Energy Agency, in order to achieve the carbon neutrality objectives and avoid disastrous consequences for the existence of man and thousands of animal and plant species, by 2050 it will be necessary – in addition to changing the way where we produce energy, food and many other things – removing nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. One of the methods studied so far involves capturing CO2 directly inside the industrial plants where, whether it is to produce energy or materials, a lot of it is emitted. The devices that allow you to do this are called “capture in place” and have been around for decades, but both buying and operating them is expensive.
The other, in fact, is the “direct air capture”, which however is not yet very efficient or particularly economical, and among other things it only works for carbon dioxide (not for other greenhouse gases, such as methane or nitrous oxide), which is not very concentrated in the air. For the moment, what the Orca can do is only a small part of the pre-established objectives, but according to Climeworks in the coming years the technologies will be able to develop rapidly and above all with not excessive costs.
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Christoph Gebald, one of the two founders and co-director of Climeworks, told al Washington Post that the Orca is a starting point for «a market which does not yet exist but which needs to be built urgently». Gebald explained that currently removing a ton of CO2 from the air costs from 600 to 800 dollars (500-700 euros), much more than what a company like Climeworks would need to make a profit without fundraising or government subsidies, also because for now most of the tools that make up facilities is built manually, and not through an automated process.
However, this could change in the future, and at the same time technologies could also improve: Gebald predicts that by 2030 it will absorb a ton of CO2 from the air it will cost 200-300 dollars (170-250 euros), and by the end of the following decade it could cost as much as half.
According to Princeton University’s director of carbon dioxide reduction research, Stephen Pacala, in the future the DAC ‘could really be a bargain. Really a very big market “and above all” it is reasonable to think “that it could become a competitive method of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, who spoke at the inauguration on Wednesday, noted that the Orca “looks almost like a science fiction story”, but “in fact it is an important step to achieve zero emissions, necessary to manage the climate crisis. “.
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However, we must keep in mind that even if they become cheaper and more widespread, technologies such as DAC will not be able to solve the problem of climate change on their own: the main way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to decrease the one that is continuously spread. from companies, means of transport and so on.