The Quest to Trap Carbon in Stone—and Beat Climate Change

Orca Plant - Photograph: Tanya Houghton

The Quest to Trap Carbon in Stone—and Beat Climate Change
WIRED, December 28, 2021
By Vince Beiser

“On a barren lava plateau in Iceland, a new facility is sucking in air and stashing the carbon dioxide in rock. The next step: Build 10,000 more.”


It was undoubtedly the most august gathering ever convened on the uninhabited lava plains of Hellisheidi, Iceland. Some 200 guests were seated in the modernist three-story visitors’ center of a geothermal power plant—the country’s prime minister and an ex-president, journalists from New York and Paris, financiers from London and Geneva, and researchers and policy wonks from around the world. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on miles of moss-carpeted rock, luminously green in the September morning sunlight. Transmission towers marched away to the horizon, carrying energy from the power plant to the capital, Reykjavik, half an hour’s drive away.


The occasion: the formal unveiling of the world’s biggest machine for sucking carbon out of the air. The geothermally powered contraption represented a rare hopeful development in our climatically imperiled world—a way to not just limit carbon emissions but shift them into reverse. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir declared it “an important step in the race to net zero greenhouse gas emissions.” Former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson predicted that “future historians will write of the success of this project.” Julio Friedmann, a prominent carbon expert at Columbia University, hailed it as “the birth of a new species” of planet-saving technology.


Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald, cofounders of Climeworks, the company behind the carbon capture plant, strode up to the front of the room together. The fresh-faced Germans, both 38, were dressed in nearly identical white shirts and blue suits. They spoke in well-rehearsed, Teutonically accented English. “This year could turn into a turning point in how climate change is perceived,” said Wurzbacher (slightly taller, stubbly brown beard). “Thirty years down the road, this can be one of the largest industries on the planet,” enthused Gebald (slightly broader, curly brown hair).


These are some mighty bold claims for a small industrial plant in a tiny, peripheral country. Climeworks’ facility is capable of pulling down only about 4,000 tons of carbon per year—an eye-dropper’s worth of the 40 billion tons the world emits annually. The plant uses a technique known as direct air capture, in which enormous fans suck in vast amounts of air from our despoiled atmosphere and run it over chemical-laden filters. It’s similar in principle to the tech that factories and refineries use to scrub CO2 from their exhaust streams. But what’s potentially much better about direct air capture is that it can be deployed anywhere, and it removes carbon already in the atmosphere, whether it was belched out 10 years ago by a cement factory in Alabama or last week by a pickup truck in Zanzibar.


True believers have been trying to turn the idea into reality for at least 20 years. For most of that time they were ignored by investors, dismissed by scientists, and regarded with suspicion by environmentalists, who worry the technology will give businesses license to keep on polluting. Now the ground is shifting rapidly. The Climeworks facility is just the first of a handful of large direct air capture plants slated to go up in the next several years, propelled by nine-figure investments and the support of powerful allies, including in the US government.


An inflection point came in 2018, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that the world will need to both cut new carbon emissions and somehow start reducing the amount of CO2 already up in the air—and that direct air capture was a promising approach. The following year, Climeworks’ top competitor, Canada-based Carbon Engineering, raised over $80 million in private investment. In 2020, Climeworks pulled in more than $100 million. Several newer startups have also leapt into the arena, and for what it’s worth, in December Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX is starting its own atmosphere-scrubbing program.


But direct air capture faces huge obstacles. Despite carbon’s enormous impact down at ground level, it is barely a trace element in the air—only about 415 out of every 1 million atmospheric particles are CO2. Imagine putting a pinch of pepper into a pound of salt; the challenge of direct air capture is akin to taking the pepper back out. The cost is staggering: To pull in any meaningful amount of carbon requires armies of giant machines and titanic amounts of energy to run them. Then there is the question of how to get all that energy. If you burn carbon-spewing fossil fuels to run your carbon-capturing machines, you’re kind of defeating the point. Finally, there is the carbon itself; once you’ve gathered up a few million tons of CO2, what do you do with it?


Oh, and one more thing to consider: Among the technology’s first beneficiaries might be oil and gas companies.

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About the Author:

Vince Beiser is the author of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization. His last feature for WIRED, in issue 29.03, was about a $500 billion biofuel scam.