Looking like half-buried silver golf balls, but the size of one-car garages, and dotting the landscape just outside Reykjavik, Iceland, these otherworldly-shaped structures (pictured above) are actually the first tiny step in what may be a “last resort” to reduce CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, much of the information in this post comes from an excellent article in the current edition of Scientific American, with the title The Last Resort.
Why “the last resort”? Well, reducing emissions is of course important, but it won’t be enough. The International Panel on Climate Change warned us in October 2018 that we have about 12 years to act if we want to avoid going past the 1.5 degree Celsius increase milestone – considered by most scientists as a ‘tipping point’, beyond which significant, perhaps catastrophic impacts to all life on Earth may begin to become irreversible.
Whatever your views on climate change and its causes – even if you think the whole thing is made up, you will find the projects in these posts fascinating if for no reason other than the sheer scope, schedule, and budget of it all. Also, the projects’ technologies are pretty cool. And really, I’ll start with only one technology which will yield a program, but there are seven or more major technologies (to be covered in Part 3), so I would declare that this is no less than a portfolio of projects, programs, and operations.
Jan Minx of Germany’s Mercator Research Institute on Climate Change says (quoting from the Scientific American article) that we will have to start building 700 carbon capture and storage installations A YEAR starting in 2030. Why? To limit global warming to 1.5 C, one trillion tons must be removed from the planet’s atmosphere by the end of this century. Carbon capture methods could remove a quarter of that amount (250 million tons), and replanting clear-cut forests another 180 million tons – so it’s still not enough, but it’s a start.
With those numbers you get an idea of program scope. How about cost? With each ton costing up to $300, the numbers are astounding: about a third of a quadrillion dollars. Quadrillion? A great word for Words with Friends, but one you don’t hear every day. These are indeed big budget numbers, which will come with outstanding opportunities for (well-prepared) project and program professionals.
One company, Climeworks, makes the system I described at the top of this blog post. In Part 2 I will go into more technical detail on the system. For now, the short description is this:
The system draws ambient air through a chemical filter, yielding CO2 and pumping it nearly a half-mile underground. There, the gas reacts with basalt rock (plagioclase and pyroxene minerals for you geology fans) and forms a solid mineral, carbonate.
Below is a photo of a core sample of basalt which shows veins of carbonate based on this reaction.
The system is powered by the excess heat from a neighboring geothermal power plant (this is Iceland after all). That’s an important Enterprise Environmental Factor to note, as unfortunately, the carbon capture and sequestration process is energy hungry – with a 1 trillion ton removal requiring approximately 400 megawatts of power. We need watch the net effect of these systems; it’s a self-defeating situation if the carbon removal simply creates a similar amount of CO2.
In Part 2, I will provide more detail on the Climeworks system, and in Part 3, I’ll talk about the other technologies, Forestry, Bioenergy, Biochar, Weathering, Ocean Fertilization, and Soil Sequestration.