Few track the worlds' energy consumption better than the International Energy Agency (IEA). But, in doing so, the IEA also records our staggering global CO2 emissions. 2019's emissions—similar to every year in the past decade—were 33 gigatons of carbon (GtC) per year. Let that number sink in. One gigaton is equal to one billion metric tons, or more than a hundred million African elephants!
While the numbers are hard to grasp, we know there must be a change. There has been tremendous progress in implementing renewables globally, but unfortunately, emissions are not trending downward. What if we told you there was a way to pull CO2 out of the air? While it sounds like magic, an Icelandic start-up called Carbfix is doing this right now in a collaborative effort with Switzerland-based Climeworks.
Outside of Reykjavík, next to the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, Carbfix removes CO2 from the plant's emissions and transforms it into minerals deep underground for permanent storage. Essentially, Carbfix is accelerating a natural carbon cycle process that usually occurs over geological timespans.
Carbfix removes CO2 through two different processes, industrial-site capture and direct air capture (DAC). Industries such as coal and gas burning, cement and steel manufacturing, and geothermal wells are ideal sources for direct gas recovery because they produce a lot of CO2 and heat. The pilot DAC project was jointly developed with Climeworks. DAC technology requires a consistent heat source (~100°C/212°F)—something the Hellisheidi Geothermal Plant is perfect for. The pilot project started in October 2017 and captures approximately 50 tons of CO2 annually. The Hellisheidi plant is the first industrial-scale combination of DAC and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
While a DAC unit can pull CO2 out of the air anywhere, capturing it at the source where levels are concentrated is far more efficient. The captured gases are pumped into scrubbers that shower them with pure water. The gasses dissolve into the water and are injected 750 m deep (2500 ft) into basaltic rock formations—which there are plenty of in Iceland. The pressure at these depths transforms gasses into stable minerals over roughly two years. There the carbon will be "locked" underground long term. Carbfix and Climeworks are currently scaling up DAC technology applications in conjunction with CO2 storage to drive down costs to a competitive EUR 20/ton (USD 25/ton).
Worldwide, the Climeworks and Carbfix technology combo will have the most notable impact directly at significant emission sources. Here is where heat and CO2 concentrations are most economical for capture and the mineralization process. Businesses will then be better able to remove their emissions and, most critically, accurately price this into products or services. The technology and applications of Cabfix and Climeworks are evolving rapidly and may prove to be an essential part of reducing atmospheric CO2.