‘Mammoth’ Direct Air Capture Plant, Construction begins

Swiss climate tech company Climeworks said it has broken ground on its most extensive facility yet for capturing CO2 from the air. The new DAC plant, “Mammoth,” will greatly scale up the company’s processes in Hellisheiđi, Iceland.

That’s where Climeworks built Orca, the most extensive DAC plant globally when it came online last September. Orca can grab up to 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, approximately comparable to how much climate disintegration 790 gas-guzzling passenger vehicles release yearly.

Mammoth, in comparison, can apprehend about nine times as much CO2 as Orca.

Climeworks AG is a Swiss firm specializing in CO2 air capture technology. The company purifies the CO2 directly from the ambient air through an adsorption-desorption process. 

In May 2017, the company extended the world’s first commercial project to purify CO2 from the ambient air in Hinwil. It contains 18 direct air capture modules that clarify 900 tons of CO2 each year, which are then marketed to a greenhouse operator to serve as fertilizer. 

In October 2017, a demo project followed, in which a module on CO2 filter was used at the Hellisheiđi Power Station in Iceland. CO2 will be filtered from the air and stored underground as a mineral. Climeworks refer to filtering CO2 from the ambient air for underground storage and carbon dioxide removal. 

In September 2021, Climeworks’s Orca carbon capture plant came online. As of September 2021, it is the world’s largest direct air capture facility, capturing 4000 tons of CO2 per year. Like the pilot project, the operating facility is located at Hellisheiđi Power Station. 

In November 2009 Climeworks AG was founded by Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher as a spin-off from ETH Zurich. The two German founders were fellow students in mechanical engineering and had worked with technologies for chemical and physical CO2 in the context of their studies and subsequent doctorates. In 2011, Climeworks received capital from investors for the first time to develop a prototype with a modular structure.

Since then, rapid scaling has led to their present module technology, which has been available since 2014. During the enterprise’s development, a partnership with the automaker Audi succeeded. Further support was provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, which enabled the accelerated commercialization and scaling of the technology.

Climeworks is part of several European research and development projects. It includes the production of synthetic fuels from CO2. Since 2018 a Swiss mineral water bottler in Vals has been producing beverages with carbon dioxide from the air.

The company’s goal by 2025 is to filter one percent of annual global CO2 emissions from the air. It requires the construction of 250,000 systems comparable to the one in Hinwil. A German subsidiary Climeworks Deutschland GmbH has also opened in Cologne. 

On 20 July 2021, the Swiss and Icelandic governments agreed to jointly develop “negative emission technologies,” which involve extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground using Climeworks and CarbFix. The corporate offices of Climeworks AG are in Zürich.

There are rarer than 20 such plants in the globe, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), and they can’t yet make a severe dent in the greenhouse gas emissions humans have dumped into the atmosphere. The IEA says that to do that, the direct air capture industry must grow to draw down 85 million metric tons of CO2 by the end of the decade. But instead, it seizes just 0.01 million metric tons today. 

That’ll likely require a new generation of DAC plants, each capable of taking in 1 million tons of CO2 annually. So in the grand scheme of things, Mammoth — with the capacity to capture 36,000 tons of CO2 a year — isn’t so mammoth. Nevertheless, mammothNevertheless, mammoth is a critical test case for scaling up Direct Air Capture tech.

One of the usual drawbacks to Direct Air Capture as a climate fix is how much energy it takes to power this kind of facility. Luckily, Mammoth and Orca are located within the ON Power Geothermal Park at Hellisheiđi, so they can use nearby renewable geothermal energy and waste heat to separate CO2 from the air.

Currently, 19 direct air capture (DAC) plants are operating worldwide, capturing better than 0.01 Mt CO2/year, and a 1Mt CO2/year capture plant is in advanced development in the US. The latest plant to come online in September 2021 is capturing 4 kt CO2/year for storage in basalt formations in Iceland. In the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, DAC is scaled up to capture more than 85 Mt CO2/year by 2030 and ~980 Mt CO2/year by 2050. This level of deployment will require several more large-scale demonstrations to refine the technology and reduce capture costs.

A larger plant under construction in Texas is supposed to capture up to 1 million tons of CO2 by the time it’s operational in 2025. But that uses a different kind of filtration process that requires much hotter temperatures to take CO2 out of the ambient air. As a result, that operation will likely rely on a combination of renewable energy and natural gas and will have to capture emissions from its gas consumption. Petroleum company Occidental backs that project, and some of the carbon it captures is expected to be used in a process that retrieves harder-to-reach oil reserves by injecting CO2 into the ground.

That’s not the case with Mammoth and Orca, where the plan is to turn the CO2 into stone. Their location is also ideal because the carbon it captures can be stored underground nearby. In addition, Climeworks is working with another company called Carbfix to lock the CO2 away in the region’s basalt rock formations that, thanks to Iceland’s volcanic activity, have more nooks and crannies to fill than older basalt rock. That storage space minimizes the need to build out new networks of pipelines to transport captured CO2, making some environmental advocates nervous.

Carbfix is an academic-industrial collaboration that has developed a novel approach (CO2-to-stone) to capture and store CO2 by its capture in water and injection into subsurface basalts. Once in the subsurface, the infiltrated CO2 reacts with the host rock forming stable carbonate minerals, thus delivering the safe, long-term storage of the captured gas.

Carbfix was initiated jointly by the Icelandic President, Dr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Wallace S. Broecker at Columbia University, Einar Gunnlaugsson at Reykjavík Energy, Eric H. Oelkers at CNRS Toulouse (France), and Sigurđur Reynir Gíslason at the University of Iceland. It will limit the Greenhouse gas emissions in Iceland. Reykjavik Energy supplied the initial funding for Carbfix. In addition, funding has been provided by The European Commission and the Department of Energy of the United States. In addition to finding a new method for permanent carbon dioxide storage, another objective of the project was to train scientists for years of work.

After years of preliminary experimental and field characterization, approximately 200 tons were injected into subsurface basalts in 2012. Research results published in 2016 showed that 95% of the injected CO2 was solidified into calcite within two years, using 25 tonnes of water per tonne of CO2. Since then, this successful carbon capture and storage approach has been upscaled at Hellisheiđi, and ongoing research is implementing this approach at other sites across Europe.

Mammoth is still very much in its infancy. However, construction is expected to occur over the next 18 to 24 months.