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Are negative emission plants the future of the energy sector?

16/10/2018
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Most clean energy projects are focused around developing carbon neutral tech, but there are some innovators looking to do one better. They’re working to create energy supplies that are carbon negative.

Carbon negative technology draws CO2 out of the ambient air, reducing what’s already in the atmosphere. The excess can be used to carbonate drinks, create climate-neutral fuels, aid agricultural processes or simply be stored in underground gas reservoirs. The two key players in this industry are Climeworks and CarbFix, who together developed the world’s first negative emission power plant in 2017. 

Carbon negative DAC filters developed by Climeworks

(Direct Air Capture Filters by Climeworks - image via Climeworks)

Climeworks

 Climeworks is a Swiss startup founded by two engineering graduates - Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher - in 2009. They developed the Direct Air Capture (DAC) system that draws in air and chemically binds CO2 to a unique filter, while allowing other atmospheric molecules to pass through. The filter is heated to 100℃ to release the CO2, which is then collected as a concentrated gas that can be used for other purposes.

How Climeworks Direct Air Capture system works
(How Climeworks DAC system works - image via Climeworks)

In 2017 they opened their first commercial plant in Hinwil, Zurich. It “recycles” the waste heat from an incineration factory below to heat its carbon filters. 900 tons of CO2 are captured every year and pumped in to nearby greenhouses to help grow vegetables.

CarbFix technology reacts rock minerals with CO2 much faster than nature
(Minerals formed on Basalt rock using CarbFix's fast-working innovation - image via CarbFix)

CarbFix

CarbFix is a research project that has been looking at the potential to turn CO2 in to a solid carbonate - reducing any risks that would come from simply storing the gas underground. Scientists have been working on the project since 2007, looking at the process in which CO2 reacts with certain materials found in rocks underground and turns in to solid minerals over hundreds or thousands of years.

In 2016 they had a breakthrough in fast-tracking the process. CarbFix used captured CO2 to create carbonated water which they then pumped through underground basaltic rock wells in Iceland’s geothermal fields. The water reacted with calcium, magnesium and iron in the rocks to form solid carbonate minerals. In only 2 years more than 95% of the CO2 had been converted.

Hellisheidi geothermal power plant - the world's first carbon negative plant
(The Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, Iceland - image via CarbFix)

The Hellisheidi Plant - A Carbon Negative Power Source

In 2017 Climeworks and CarbFix teamed up on an ambitious project at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant outside Reykjavik.

The plant was the ideal place to test their theories - not only was its Icelandic location geographically beneficial for CarbFix’s methods, but since it was a geothermal power plant it already had a carbon emission output that was 99% less than a coal-fired facility.

The project used both teams’ key technologies. Climeworks’ DAC system was installed to collect carbon from the air around the power plant, where it was then converted to carbonated water and pumped underground to be mineralised.

The DAC Filters at Hellisheidi power plant remove CO2 from the air
(DAC filters - image via Climeworks)

An effective solution?

Despite initial problems for the Climeworks team caused by freezing temperatures, high humidity and a high concentration of sulphur in the air, they eventually managed to keep the system running for several months - with tests proving that they were actually successful in drawing more CO2 out of the atmosphere than the plant was pumping out in its emissions.

Around 12.5 tons of carbon was collected in three months - a relatively small amount, but this was only from one DAC collector. The team are now planning to scale up, adding more collectors that can draw several thousand tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere to be converted in to safe minerals underground.

Following these trials, they believe similar systems can be set up around the world - particularly with basalt rock formations being commonplace in the USA, Middle East, Africa and the ocean floor.

Climeworks first commercial plant in Hinwil, Zurich
(DAC plant - image via Climeworks)

The future

Right now carbon capture is an expensive process - currently costing around $600 per ton of carbon. Climeworks believe that they can reduce this over time, but it would still take significant legislative support from international communities to fund their ambitious global plans. Fortunately there may be promising movement from high places, with the IPCC report commissioned by the UN this month advocating the need to rely on CO2-reducing technology to balance out continuing emissions.

The DAC system still needs to be measured on a larger scale to see if it can be economically viable. But it demonstrates that the potential does exist for innovative technologies to come along and reverse the damage done by older ones. Maybe this is the next step in the renewable industry, or maybe it’s just another bright-yet-unsustainable idea.

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Are negative emission plants the future of the energy sector? - Time to read 5 min
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