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CO2-removal leader Climeworks says new tech can halve costs, energy use

Direct air capture is expensive and energy-intensive. Climeworks, which operates the world’s largest DAC plant, says it’s making progress tackling both challenges.
By Maria Gallucci

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An artist's rendering shows Climeworks' cube-shaped vision for direct-air-capture systems. (Climeworks)

Nearly a month after opening the world’s largest direct air capture” plant in Iceland, Climeworks has unveiled a new and purportedly better version of its carbon-sucking technology — one that it plans to deploy for the first time on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

On Tuesday, the Swiss company said it had successfully completed large-scale testing of its Generation 3 technology at its facility in Basel, Switzerland. The announcement follows five years of research and development, during which time Climeworks built two novel direct-air-capture (DAC) plants using its second-generation technology.

Climeworks claims its new design can capture twice as much CO2 from the atmosphere as the previous version. The Generation 3 tech uses half the energy and costs half as much overall per ton of CO2 removed — chipping away at two of the biggest hurdles facing the nascent carbon-removal industry. 

Generation 3 is what matters as we move ahead,” Douglas Chan, chief operating officer for Climeworks, said during a press conference held at the company’s annual summit in Zurich. That is going to be the basis of how we scale and continue to scale Climeworks throughout the industry.” 

The results, gathered over weeks of testing, have not been independently confirmed, the company said by email. Climeworks also declined to share specifics about how much energy its projects consume. But it said the new technology will undergo third-party validation and verification once deployed in the real world, starting with Project Cypress in southwest Louisiana.

Project Cypress is one of the early winners in the U.S. Department of Energy’s $3.5 billion DAC hub” program, which was created by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Climeworks and its partners are slated to receive up to $600 million to design and operate a complex of DAC machines, which will link to underground CO2 storage wells. When completed, potentially in 2029, the project aims to be the first to remove over 1 million metric tons (a megaton”) of CO2 per year.

An illustration of Project Cypress in Louisiana shows dozens of Climeworks' Generation 3 modules. (Climeworks)

A megaton is important, because it has real climate impact,” Chan said. That’s the first step to the gigatons that we need to achieve in 2050 as an industry.”

Climeworks said its Generation 3 technology represents a major milestone” in its efforts to reduce its overall costs, which are currently around $1,000 per ton of captured CO2. The company aims to achieve costs of $250 to $350 per ton by 2030.

Ramping up removal

Climeworks is one of more than a thousand companies and research teams that are together creating a new industry around carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. Organizations are using everything from limestone and seawater to sewage and old corncobs to try and soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it away permanently. 

Climate scientists say that, in addition to rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, removing CO2 from the atmosphere is necessary to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. Exactly how much carbon we must remove is highly uncertain, because the answer largely depends on how successful companies and countries are at slashing emissions and protecting natural carbon sinks” like forests and wetlands. 

Still, between 7 billion and 9 billion metric tons of CO2 likely need to be removed annually by 2050 to keep global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a threshold the world is increasingly close to crossing. That’s according to a new independent assessment, also released on Tuesday, which looked at pathways for credibly and sustainably scaling carbon dioxide removal.

CDR gets a bad rap sometimes, because of the fact that it’s seen as a false solution, or it’s seen as a diversion from the task at hand, which is emissions reductions,” said Stephanie Roe, a co-author of the assessment and the lead climate and energy scientist at World Wildlife Fund. And some bad-faith actors are using CDR in that way,” she added.

What we’re saying is, we’re already shooting past these emissions reductions [targets], which is why we need CDR to begin with,” she told Canary Media. And we need everything in the arsenal, in terms of policy incentives and innovations and markets, to be able to meet the amount of CDR that we’re going to need over the next 20 to 30 years.”

At the present rate of human-induced warming, global temperatures would reach 1.5°C around 2040. (IPCC)

At least 255 carbon-removal companies have raised $3.9 billion in total investment between 2009 and 2023, according to the Net Zero Insights database. Climeworks alone has won much of that funding: Since its founding 15 years ago, the company has raised some $810 million. 

Beyond the cost and energy-use challenges that Climeworks says its new technology will help ameliorate, the emerging industry also needs to figure out a business model. Today, voluntary carbon markets are the primary means of funding new projects, and many CDR startups aren’t yet able to meet the growing demand from airlines, tech giants, and other corporations. Increased government support is also seen as critical — just last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it will spend $1.2 million to purchase carbon-removal credits from 24 early-stage CDR companies.

Currently, novel methods of CDR, including direct air capture, remove only about 1.3 million metric tons of CO2 per year, or less than 0.1 percent of total carbon removal, according to the new report. Another 2 billion metric tons of annual carbon removal comes from more conventional” methods, primarily in the form of planting trees.

Carbon-removal cubes

At the Climeworks event on Tuesday, the company’s executives said the Generation 3 technology should help accelerate the rollout of DAC projects by making it possible to capture more CO2 using fewer resources.

Climeworks uses giant industrial fans to pass air through highly porous filters, or solid sorbents,” that chemically bind with CO2 in the air. Steam, pressure, and lots of electricity are required to separate the gas from the sorbent. That step — getting concentrated CO2 to unstick from the filter — is one of the most energy-intensive parts of the DAC process.

Jan Wurzbacher, co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks, said the company modified the shape and chemistry of its sorbent materials so they can absorb CO2 passing through the filters twice as fast as earlier versions; they can also de-absorb” the concentrated CO2 twice as quickly, reducing the amount of heat and energy required. The company’s test results suggest the filter materials can last about three times longer, reducing the time and cost associated with replacing them.

A second and far more conspicuous difference between generations is the shape of the company’s DAC machines. 

The Mammoth direct-air-capture plant in Hellisheiði, Iceland, is capable of capturing up to 36,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. (Climeworks)

At Climeworks’ existing Orca and Mammoth facilities in Iceland, containers are stacked to form long rectangular towers, which are paired two by two to make a V shape. Both the front of the containers, which resemble large window blinds, and the back are fully exposed to the environment. (In Iceland, Climeworks’ partner Carbfix injects the captured CO2 into basaltic rock to trap the greenhouse gas below ground.)

Climeworks’ latest design instead resembles a cube, with four walls of collector containers. Wurzbacher said the new shape is meant to answer the question, How can we spend as little capex as possible to put as much capture capacity into one element?” Fans on top of the cube help separate the incoming and outgoing air, so that the filters aren’t unintentionally processing air that’s already been stripped of CO2.

Four walls of CO2-sucking air filters. (Climeworks)

The company said it plans to install several dozen cubes at Project Cypress in Louisiana. Climeworks is likely to reach a final investment decision on the project by the end of 2025, said Daniel Nathan, the chief project developer officer.

The company is also planning to build facilities using Generation 3 technology in North Dakota and California, with additional support from federal DAC hub funding. And outside the United States, Climeworks has announced initiatives to develop projects in Australia, Canada, Kenya, and Norway.

As carbon-removal startups work to rapidly scale their technologies around the world, it’s crucial that these projects don’t jeopardize biodiversity or the health and well-being of communities, said Roe of World Wildlife Fund. Just as important is ensuring that companies and countries keep working to reduce planet-warming emissions in the first place — a far easier and more cost-effective approach to tackling climate change than CDR.

We always have to balance that line of making sure that we do everything possible right now to focus on emissions reduction,” she said.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.