A Swiss-Icelandic pilot project that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it to stone deep underground went live this week. The process remains costly, but could offer a solution if scalable for industrial sectors that are difficult to decarbonize and to help the world economy to go “carbon negative” sometime later this century.
Climeworks, a Swiss firm already experienced in direct air capture of CO2, has partnered with CarbFix, a research project led by Icelandic utility Reykjavik Energy, to draw down 50 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in a year.
The technique could be a game-changer, as until recently, it was thought that such mineralization processes could take hundreds or thousands of years. The gas is dissolved in water, much like how Coca-Cola becomes a carbonated beverage, and pumped about a kilometre under the seabed where it reacts with basaltic rock and mineralizes over the course of a couple of years. The carbon is then locked away for millions, potentially billions of years.
Since May, Climeworks has been capturing CO2 and piping the gas into local greenhouses to boost plant growth. Separately, the CarbFix project, backed by the European Commission, has been testing the mineralization process at a proof-of-concept stage for the last three years. The latter’s success was announced to the world last year via a paper in the journal Science. The new project brings these two complementary efforts together, although the volumes—roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a US family—remain small potatoes.
The majority of emissions scenarios produced by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change researchers that allow the planet to keep within the guardrail of 2C of warming above pre-industrial times assumes widespread adoption of so-called negative emissions technologies.
Back in 2013, a pair of pilot projects testing the viability of carbon mineralization in the Pacific Northwest backed by the US Department of Energy was launched, and last year, the DoE took the effort to the next level with its $68 million Carbon Storage Assurance and Facility Enterprise (CarbonSAFE) initiative, aiming to test the viability of the technique at much larger volumes, in partnership with some of the Icelandic team. The first phase involves a pre-feasibility study for a commercial scale geological site that is looking at regulatory, legislative and commercial questions. PICS for its part has helped fund background research for the study through an intern with Ocean Networks Canada (ONC).
The proposed next phase would test the technique at a scale of more than 50 million tonnes of CO2 sourced from industries in Washington, Oregon, BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan in the Cascadia Basin off the coast of Vancouver Island and Washington State. This is roughly equivalent to all the greenhouse gases emitted by BC in a year. The researchers involved believe the basin is capable of storing most of the point-source CO2 emissions from the whole of the Pacific Northwest.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.