A Swiss technology company is aiming to help prevent repeats of this summer’s Europe-wide CO2 shortage by capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air.
In a world first, Climeworks has launched a plant on the outskirts of Zurich which commercially sells gas from the air to a nearby greenhouse farm – providing a continuous, local and renewable source vital for crop growth.
From fizzy drinks manufacturers to slaughter houses and bakeries, multiple industries have been affected by the recent CO2 shortage. Production in some factories was slowed or even suspended.
The low supplies are due to a longer than usual break in production of ammonia, one of the key sources of Europe’s food grade CO2. It was also made worse thanks to a boost in demand for beer and meat during the World Cup and hot weather in the UK.
Climeworks, which is based in Zurich, says it has further CO2 capturing plants in the pipeline with at least one fizzy drink maker interested in the technology as a way to solve potential future problems.
The technology works by drawing in air and allowing the CO2 to get chemically absorbed to a filter. Once the filter is saturated, it is heated and the CO2 collected as concentrated gas. It can then be sent by pipeline directly to the place it is needed.
The plant near Zurich is installed on the roof of a waste incinerator which shares heat energy with the system to improve efficiency. It is also connected to a greenhouse farm which uses the gas to enhance the growth of vegetables by 20%.
The 18-turbine plant is able to supply around 900 tons of CO2 annually – or the approximate level released from 200 cars but at a heavily subsidised rate. The farm is paying market rates of approximately 100 to 200 Swiss Francs (£77 to £153) but it costs about 600 Swiss Francs (£461) to extract it from the air.
Chief executive and co-founder Jan Wurzbacher told Sky News he hopes to overcome the cost with scale and improvements in the technology.
He said: “Ten years ago people said it’s not possible and it’s too expensive, today we’ve proved it’s possible and people still say it’s expensive.
“Give us another five years and they will also stop saying that. It’s clear that industries are striving for CO2 at the moment so there is clearly a market for it.”
Paul Ruser, the manager of the farm using the captured CO2, said: “It’s a great situation as you save on fossil resources. For example through the transport of the gas and also the way that ‘technical CO2’ is produced. The Climeworks system uses only the air.”
The method of extracting CO2 from the air is not new, but there is growing excitement in its potential as market needs are changing and governments worldwide are attempting to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.
However, along with the potential benefits of this type of technology, there are downsides.
Tony Patt, professor of climate policy at ETH Zürich University, thinks that it may be abused if it becomes economically viable.
He said: “If people start to think of this as a substitute and think it’s okay to continue to burn fossils fuels and suck the CO2 out of the air, that’s wrong-headed thinking. It’s theoretically possible but it’s a very very expensive way to do it. We need to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere.”
Climeworks has an ambitious goal to capture 1% of the world’s global CO2 emissions with its technology. But it admits that at the current level of carbon dioxide capture, it would need about 250,000 plants.