Anthropogenic climate change is quite possibly the world’s most heavily researched, scientifically-validated threat. Its existence has been corroborated by decades of studies by thousands of scientists who have looked at millions of years of climate history. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been devoted to examining the causes of climate change and nearly as many to illuminating its effects. Agricultural devastation. Coral reef collapse. Hurricane and fire seasons that span the majority of the year. The number of extinct species could be in the millions. Human refugees in the billions. All in the next 83 years.
The International Panel on Climate Change, in its Fifth Assessment Report, concluded that the only way for this disaster to be averted is by keeping global warming to 2℃ over pre-industrial levels, and the only way to do that is by limiting global carbon dioxide emissions. The Paris Agreement was signed shortly after, with the one hundred and ninety-five signing nations pledging to do what is necessary to keep warming under that 2℃ threshold. We are not on pace to follow through. In fact, at its current rate, the world will emit enough CO2 to cause 2℃ warming in the next thirty years.
As such, attention must be paid not just to ways to limit global CO2 emissions, but also to ways to actually remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere. In fact, the I.P.C.C. estimates that to meet the Paris goals there is almost a 90% chance that negative emission technologies will need to be deployed. Without them, our current trajectory leads to catastrophe.
The nature of the problem—that the consequences of environmental inaction are incontrovertibly dire, that they will be felt most strongly by the rising generation, and that the only way to avert them is through action now—makes it exactly the kind of issue that Helena was designed to take on.
So, in 2016, Helena launched The Helena Prize, an international competition for embryonic concepts, technologies, or companies in climate science, to be awarded to the applicant whose project would have the largest measurable effect on climate change (or, more specifically, the largest net-negative effect on radiative forcing).
The Prize was intended to enable Helena to recognize and evaluate as many external teams in the climate change sector as possible, to identify the ways Helena could potentially catalyze the biggest difference, and to accelerate the development and effect of the eventual recipient’s project. In order to do that, Helena made the benefits of the prize proportional to the magnitude of the problem.
The Prize gave the winner management and digital consulting from Boston Consulting Group, technological and scientific mentorship from top climate experts, access to a cutting-edge laboratory and workspace, and permanent Helena membership, which provided access to and assistance from Helena’s full network of world leaders.
The Prize accepted applications from around the world, with each applicant judged by a panel of some of the preeminent scientists, analysts, entrepreneurs, and policy-makers in the climate science field.
After analysis, the winner of the Prize was announced: Climeworks, a direct-air carbon capture company based out of Switzerland that was founded by a pair of thirty-three-year-old German engineers, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher. Climeworks offered the prospect of building facilities that remove carbon dioxide from the air and then store or repurpose it, making it an effective negative emissions technology. It offered a for-profit venture that had the technology to be revolutionary, but it was still nascent and needed help developing.
Since the announcement of the Prize, Helena has been working to help Climeworks with its growth, scalability, and funding.
In that time, Climeworks has made tremendous strides. It first launched the world’s first commercial-scale direct-air capture plant in Hinwil, Switzerland. And then, less than six months later, it launched the world’s first direct-air capture plant with carbon removal, making it the first developed carbon capture plant that is carbon net-negative. It is now the world leader in the field of direct-air carbon capture.
Beginning in August 2016, Helena held a series of focused member meetings on the critical issues threatening our world. Chief among them was the vital importance of taking action to fight climate change. Members looked at Helena’s unique structure and asked: what are the most unique and efficient means through which Helena could help to address climate change?
To answer this question, our staff and members interviewed dozens of experts from Oxford, Harvard, MIT, the Center for Carbon Renewal, the American Renewable Energy Institute, and elsewhere.
This research revealed two important facts. First, carbon capture technologies are vitally important to averting climate disaster. It is not enough just to transition to a carbon neutral society – rather, mankind will need to emit large negative quantities of CO2 by the middle of the 21st century. Second, the technology to achieve this planetary-scale carbon capture and storage does not exist in any technically or economically viable form.
Given this, it is vital that global society devote significant resources to carbon-capture R&D and commercialization now, so that the technology will be ready for global deployment by mid-century. In late-2016, nowhere near enough attention or resources were being used to do so.
This presented us with two options. Either:
In this instance, Helena did not have the proprietary expertise or technical abilities that would have enabled us to make a technological breakthrough in the science of carbon capture. Instead, it was evident that our assets would be more useful if applied to help commercialize an existing technology, by supplying it with management and technical expertise, customers, investors, media exposure, and more.
Furthermore, assisting an outside organization or team would allow Helena to produce disproportionate impact through leverage. Helena was well positioned to benefit from this leveraging effect for a number of reasons.
First, we had already assembled a network of skilled and globally influential individuals whose support would be significant for an early venture. Second, we held relationships with a number of partners who could offer valuable services to an eventual winner. Third, we had proven capable of finding and recruiting passionate and accomplished individuals pursuing meaningful work across the globe.
With these advantages in mind, we felt confident in our ability to successfully support an external venture designed to fight climate change. Our task was now to search the globe for the person or people doing the best work in the world on this issue and to support them from every angle with the full power of the Helena network.
In order to find the best possible team to support, and incentivize them to share information we could use to evaluate their quality, we launched a formal award: The Helena Prize.
Helena’s first step was to populate a panel of judges to evaluate the applicants. Using our network, we recruited thirteen globally recognized scientists, analysts, clean-tech entrepreneurs, and policy-makers in the field of climate science and technology.
Swipe left and right below to view the Helena Prize Judges.
The judging panel, once established, worked with Helena to finalize both the metrics for evaluating the applicants and the parameters for accepting them. The metrics were two-fold: Feasibility and Magnitude.
— Feasibility: Applicants were judged on the likelihood of their project to succeed. The Prize was not, at its heart, an intellectual endeavor; it was a practical one. If a technology could never come to fruition, its practical impact—regardless of its theoretical one—would be none. The goal of the prize was to catalyze the largest quantifiable impact possible on climate change, so feasibility in both the short- and long-term was a necessary criterion.
— Magnitude: Applicants were judged on the potential scientific impact of their project. To measure this, the judges analyzed each project’s effect on radiative forcing. Put simply, radiative forcing measures the difference between how much sunlight is absorbed by Earth and how much sunlight is reflected back out. If radiative forcing is very positive, a lot more energy is being absorbed than reflected, which results in the planet getting warmer. (And, inversely, a negative radiative forcing means the planet reflects far more than it absorbs, resulting in cooling, which is what the judges were looking for.) There are many ways to theoretically measure a technology’s effect on climate change, but the judging panel agreed that the effect on radiative forcing was the most direct and unbiased metric available.
The parameters on applicants were kept as simple and straightforward as the judging metrics were. There were two of these as well: the venture must be for-profit, and the founder(s) must be thirty-five years old or younger.
— For-Profit: Climate change is a long-term problem, so the winner of The Prize needed to be a long-term solution. Solutions which combat climate change need to be able to stand on their own – regardless of the political, social, or philanthropic mores of the day. Ventures which can compete in the capital marketplace will be more likely to grow in strength over time, more resilient to social headwinds beyond their control, and ultimately more likely to endure and succeed. For these reasons, Helena decided to limit the Prize to for-profit efforts to fight climate change. Additionally, Helena wanted to keep the deliberation process as objective as possible, and businesses (and potential businesses) would be much more accurately assessed by the two judging metrics than more sociological or governmental initiatives would be.
— Age Restriction: Societal, political, and technological changes will need to be implemented over an extended period of time (30-50+) years in order to effectively address the issue and repair the environment. The generation that will bear the weight of this responsibility – and face the brunt of the consequences should humanity fail to act – is currently 35 years of age and younger. This is a demographic where Helena has great reach and access; Helena was founded on the importance of supporting and empowering the next generation of inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Further, assistance is likely to have a greater impact when offered early in a career – when contacts, advice, and support may be scarcer. For these reasons, Helena decided to focus exclusively on individuals 35 and under.
The Helena Prize was developed in order to catalyze the growth of a budding company. Towards this aim, Helena wanted to surround the winning concept with what was essentially an entrepreneurial ecosystem: a permanent network of connections, third-party consulting and support, a board of advisors, and access to a lab. The winners of The Prize would receive:
— Lifetime Helena Membership. This would provide the winners of the prize with integration into the heart of Helena’s extraordinary network of leaders from across generations and fields. As part of the Helena Membership, the winners would be able to leverage the full power of Helena’s network toward accomplishing their goal of reducing radiative forcing.
— Management and digital consulting support from Boston Consulting Group (BCG). BCG ranks among the largest and most prestigious management consulting firms in the world. They count among their clients Google, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Government of Canada. They are among the world’s best and most experienced corporate strategists, but their assistance is normally reserved for companies large enough to afford them. For a company in an embryonic stage, consulting from BCG is game-changing.
— Mentorship from the judging board. The thirteen judges on the board not only agreed to choose the winner, but they also agreed to become an advisory board for the winner.
— Access to Sierra Energy’s Area 52. Area 52 is a state-of-the-art business incubator and workspace at the University of California Davis. It was opened in 2016 and specializes in the physical manifestation of ideas into tangible products. It provides all kinds of advanced manufacturing technologies and tools.
— Everything else. Our aim with the Prize was to use every asset at our disposal to increase the winners’ chances of success. Since different winners would need different things, we pledged the power of our staff and membership network to assist ad-hoc in overcoming whatever problems or obstacles the eventual winner faced.
Unlike most awards, The Helena Prize was intended to be forward-looking. The goal was not to acknowledge a revolutionary technology or concept—though that was a welcome corollary—but to incubate and stimulate the technology or concept and enable it to become fully realized. The strength of The Helena Prize was always intended to grow after it was awarded.
In October 2017, we launched The Helena Prize: a global search for the most promising young person or team working on a for-profit venture that would reduce radiative forcing. Applications were open from October 1st, 2016.
After months of soliciting applications from our judges, membership network, and at conferences around the globe, applications for The Helena Prize closed on January 31st, 2017. In the weeks that followed, our judges deliberated over applications from extremely high-quality teams in industries as diverse as agriculture and private flight.
After several months of evaluation, the judging panel awarded The Helena Prize in a nearly unanimous vote to Climeworks, a direct-air capture (DAC) company based in Switzerland.
Climeworks was founded in 2009 by German engineers Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher.
They launched the company directly out of their PhD. program at ETH Zurich, where they had initially designed their proprietary carbon-capture system that would be the basis for Climeworks. At the time of winning The Prize, Gebald and Wurzbacher, both thirty-three, had a team of approximately twenty-five engineers and scientists, and they had developed small pilot and demonstration plants, with the hopes of launching a full-scale plant in the near future.
Climeworks’s magnitude metric score was maximal. With fully-matured technology, Climeworks could remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, resulting in an effect on radiative forcing that would be quantifiably profound. The extent of carbon capture potential atmospheric benefit had been corroborated just a few years prior by the International Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report.
The report, released in 2014, made clear how necessary negative emissions technologies (NETs) would be in the coming years. According to their models, there was an 87% percent chance that NETs would need to be employed in order for the world to abide by the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to two-degrees above pre-Industrial levels, and they would need to be employed on a large scale: roughly 10 gigatons of CO2 removed annually by the year 2050. It was the first time NETs had occupied a prominent a place in the I.P.C.C.’s reports, and, though the I.P.C.C. did not specify the particular NETs it envisioned being used, carbon capture with sequestration was implied, since it is one of the only technologies theoretically capable of removing carbon dioxide in volumes that high.
The project’s feasibility score was also high. Carbon capture was an established technology; it had been used for decades on the flues of factories and production plants, where carbon dioxide is heavily concentrated (roughly 10,000ppm). The struggle had been to take the gas out of the ambient air—where its concentrations are much lower (roughly 400ppm)—for a reasonable price. Gebald and Wurzbacher, armed with data from their demonstration plants and eight years of running Climeworks, presented a clear, attainable, and scientifically-tested way of direct-air carbon capturing that was both financially viable and required no technological miracles to scale up. Their technology was also modular — that is, it could be scaled up or down to fit almost any environment. This meant that Climeworks’s future implementation and growth would be less affected by potential resource constraints (such as available land) than other technologies would be.
They laid out a three-step plan for execution and expansion:
First, use captured CO2 to supply beverage companies, greenhouses, and other consumers with on-site, carbon-neutral CO2. The moderate quantities of CO2 Climeworks initially captured would be sold and repurposed locally. Though this would have a negligible impact on the environment, it would give them data and a revenue stream to prepare for larger projects. (The full-scale plant that they were looking to launch would be in this step; they intended to siphon the plant’s captured CO2 to a greenhouse nearby.)
Second, provide captured CO2 for the synthesis of renewable fuels. The demand here is greater than that from greenhouses and soda companies, and the reach and revenue would be broader. Climeworks had signed a partnership with Audi in 2015, though the extent was still limited.
Third, sequester and store gigatons of the captured CO2 underground. The ultimate goal of DAC is to close the carbon cycle, which requires CO2 to be permanently removed from the atmosphere, not just recycled or repurposed. Injecting the CO2 underground—where it would react with the basalt in the earth and mineralize—would provide a stable, permanent storage location for tens of billions of tons of CO2 captured annually. This is the scale of carbon removal the Paris Agreement had practically mandated.
Before The Helena Prize, Climeworks was already one of the nascent industry’s leaders, but the industry—and the company—was still in its infancy. Climeworks had raised roughly $20.5m in the eight years since its inception. For its technologies and capacities to develop enough to reach Step 3, its investment needed to rise exponentially. It needed corporate partnerships, access to United States’ venture capitalists and angel investors, marketing and publicity assistance to tell its story, and the support of a large consulting firm. Exactly what The Prize offered.
The Helena Prize was presented to Gebald and Wurzbacher on May 13th, 2017 in a ceremony at Helena Headquarters in Los Angeles. “We’re thrilled to be the inaugural recipient of the Helena Prize,” Gebald and Wurzbacher said in a statement. “We have a long road ahead of us, and our future depends on help from smart partners like Helena and BCG, which can provide the business advice and know-how we need to grow rapidly. We look forward to a long-term relationship with them to work toward negative emissions.”
Jeff Hill, a BCG senior partner and the head of the firm’s Los Angeles office, said “Climeworks demonstrates the aim of The Helena Prize, with its groundbreaking technology and social impact mission. We look forward to lending our expertise to ensure that the venture grows and gains momentum.”
Sam Feinburg, Helena’s executive director and COO, said “Investing in and supporting the developing of this carbon capture technology is critical to saving the planet from disaster. Climeworks is the world leader in this space and we are incredibly proud to be supporting them.”
Immediately after the awarding of the Prize, Helena met with Climeworks to evaluate precisely what the company needed – where its biggest challenges and strategic priorities laid, how it planned to meet them, and how Helena could help catalyze and accelerate that process. In parallel, Boston Consulting Group began their pro-bono engagement with Climeworks, working to improve the businesses management and functioning, with a particular focus on customer acquisition.
On May 31st, 2017, less than a month after accepting The Helena Prize, Climeworks launched the world’s first commercial-scale direct-air carbon capture plant in Hinwil, Switzerland. The full-size plant is the largest of its kind, featuring 18 suction fans and filtering 900 tons of CO2 annually from ambient air. It is also the first DAC plant to have a large-scale commercial consumer; Climeworks sells its captured CO2 at market price to a local greenhouse.
“Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the two-degree target of the international community,” Gebald said in a statement.
Climeworks partnered with agricultural producer Gebrüder Meier Primanatura AG to create a sustainable, cradle-to-cradle carbon cycle for its captured CO2. The pure CO2 gas Climeworks collects is pumped through an underground pipeline 400m away to a large greenhouse complex operated by Gebrüder Meier. The gas is then vented into the greenhouse’s atmosphere, acting as a fertilizer and boosting vegetable growth by up to 20%.
The plant is strategically placed on the roof of the KEZO waste utilization facility, right above the incinerators. Climeworks’s technology requires energy in order to isolate and collect the CO2 it captures, so placing the plant above the waste incinerators allows Climeworks to use the free, ambient heat already emanating from the facility. This cuts down drastically on the amount of energy the Climeworks plant must generate itself, resulting in more efficient carbon-capturing cycles.
The plant removes CO2 from the atmosphere at a cost of approximately $550 per ton. This is the lowest cost for DAC on record and $50 below the theoretical minimum that the American Physical Society had claimed was chemically and physically possible.
For DAC to be feasible on a large scale, it needs to be cost non-prohibitive. The Hinwil plant is a major step towards establishing DAC as an economically viable NET, as well as the first step in the plan for expansion Climeworks had presented in its application for The Helena Prize.
“With the energy and economic data from the plant, we can make reliable calculations for other, larger projects and draw on the practical experience we have gained,” said Wurzbacher.
Gebald and Wurzbacher’s goals for their company remained ambitious. “We’re working hard to reach the goal of filtering one percent of global CO2 emissions by 2025.” Gebald said. “To achieve this, we estimate around 250,000 DAC plants like the one in Hinwil are necessary.”
On October 10th, 2017, less than five months after the launch of its first plant in Switzerland, Climeworks launched its second plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland. This was another watershed moment: while the Hinwil plant is the world’s first full-scale DAC plant with a commercial consumer, Climeworks partnered with Reykjavik Energy to make its Hellisheidi plant the world’s first DAC plant with permanent geological storage.
The CO2 is collected using precisely the same process that the Hinwil plant uses. But once collected, the gas, instead of being repurposed as a greenhouse fertilizer, is isolated and stored using Reykjavik Energy’s CarbFix process. In CarbFix, the captured CO2 is first dissolved in water, and then that aqueous solution is injected 700m underground into basaltic rock formations. Over the next two years, the CO2 reacts with the metals in the rock and mineralizes, changing states from a gas to a solid that is both stable and safe. This results in the permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Edda Sif Aradottir, a CarbFix project leader at Reykjavik Energy, said “We have developed CarbFix at a unique location here in Iceland and proved that we can permanently turn this greenhouse gas into rock. By imitating natural processes this happens in less than two years. By integrating the Climeworks and CarbFix technologies, we create a solution that is deployable where we have basalt but independent of the location of emissions. This is important to scale up the CarbFix approach on a global level.”
The Hellisheidi plant is part of CarbFix2, an EU-sponsored research project designed to implement Reykjavik Energy’s CarbFix sequestration technology on a global scale. The goal of this individual plant is demonstrative: to prove the effectiveness and viability of creating a complete CCS chain by combining CarbFix with Climeworks’s Direct-Air Capture technology. The Climeworks module used is, therefore, one of its smallest units; it has one suction fan and captures roughly 50 tons of CO2 per year. It is located on the grounds of a geothermal power plant, a place chosen for precisely the same reason that the waste incineration plant was chosen in Switzerland: the Climeworks plant can use the heat naturally emanating from its environment. Both Climeworks and Reykjavik Energy intend to use the success of this plant to launch larger projects.
Gebald said in a statement: “The potential of scaling-up our technology, in combination with CO2 storage, is enormous. Not only here in Iceland but also in numerous other regions which have similar rock formations. Our plan is to offer carbon removal to individuals, corporates, and organizations as a means to reverse their non-avoidable carbon emissions.”
On February 2nd, 2018, Climeworks announced that it had become the first company to be commissioned to permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Two customers—the 2041 Foundation and the ClimateWorks Foundation—both contracted Climeworks to extract from the atmosphere an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the amount the companies emit, enabling them to continue their operations without adding to net global emissions.
Previously, all private contracts—for example, Climeworks’s agreement with Gebrüder Meier in Switzerland—had been to buy and use captured CO2, which is a carbon-neutral process, since the CO2 never actually leaves the atmosphere. These two new contracts, however, are to permanently sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, which is a net-negative process and closes the carbon cycle. Not only does this help to curb global emissions, but it also establishes a new market mechanism to accrue investment for DAC in the future.
The 2041 Foundation was founded by Helena Member Robert Swan, OBE, in 1984 to protect and preserve Antarctica through the promotion of recycling, renewable energy, and sustainability. Swan, a lifelong adventurer who was the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles, recently spearheaded the South Pole Energy Challenge (SPEC), in which he and his son Barney trekked to the South Pole using only renewable energies. Their exclusive reliance on renewables allowed them to complete the peripatetic portion of their expedition with no carbon footprint; however, the preparatory work and logistics of the expedition—plane flights, scouting, research, etc.—could not be accomplished in a similar manner. In order to keep the whole SPEC operation carbon-neutral, Swan commissioned Climeworks to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to offset what they produced.
Climeworks’ second customer, the ClimateWorks Foundation, is a global NGO that focuses on strengthening the impact philanthropic efforts have on climate change. Because its primary functions are organizational and strategic, ClimateWorks emits very little CO2 directly from its day-to-day operations. However, the company does have indirect emissions due to electricity consumption, business travel, and employee commuting—what are called Scope 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions according to The Greenhouse Gas Protocol—which Climeworks agreed to offset with DAC.
All emissions will be captured by Climeworks’ plant in Hellisheidi and sequestered using Reykjavik Energy’s CarbFix.
Jan Wurzbacher, Climeworks co-founder and co-CEO, said in a statement, “Unlike compensation schedules, where emissions are offset through the trade of pollution rights, the Climeworks solution involves the direct removal of the same amount of emissions from the atmosphere as the customer is creating. Climeworks offers a metered and permanent approach to Carbon Dioxide Removal. This makes the Climeworks solution an important opportunity for companies and organizations to ensure they are actually carbon neutral despite unavoidable CO2 from their operations, such as Scope Three emissions.”
All of the I.P.C.C.’s under-two-degree scenarios involve a drastic reduction in global emissions over the next few decades. In many industries, however, emissions, direct or indirect, are inescapable. Climeworks has effectively established a new market mechanism: a way for every organization, company, or government to reduce its net emissions without having to revamp its economy, overhaul its production methods, or wait for a technological maturation or breakthrough. This is particularly important for companies, like the ClimateWorks Foundation, that doesn’t have the direct, visible emissions of a production plant. For the first time, these companies have a clear, measurable way to ensure their carbon neutrality.
This mechanism is multiplicatively beneficial: not only are companies able to reduce their net emissions, but the money they invest to approach carbon neutrality increases the rate at which Climeworks can expand and optimize its own technology and production methods. This allows Climeworks to increase the scope and effectiveness of its DAC, which, in turn, creates a virtuous cycle because it better enables companies to become carbon neutral.
On August 19, 2019, Climeworks announced that it had partnered with Ineratec, Sunfire, and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) to develop a synthetic fuel produced from air-captured carbon dioxide and renewable energy sources. The fuel-creation plant is housed on the KIT campus, and it was designed as part of the German government-backed P2X Kopernikus Project. It is the first integrated “Power-to-Liquid” facility in the world.
“Worldwide, wind and sun supply a sufficient amount of energy, but not always at the right time,” Professor Roland Dittmeyer, KIT said. “Moreover, a few important transport sectors, such as air or heavy-duty traffic, will continue to need liquid fuels in the future, as they have a high energy density.”
Climeworks direct-air capture is the first in the four-step process of creating fuels from air and green power. The captured carbon dioxide is used to create a hydrogen and carbon monoxide synthesis gas, which is subsequently converted into long-chain hydrocarbon molecules, which are, finally, turned into directly usable fuels like gasoline, kerosene, and diesel. These synthetic fuels can also function as storage for renewable energy.
The plant is still a test facility, capable of producing about 10 liters of fuel per day. In the next phase, production will expand to 200 liters per day, and, after that, a pre-industrial demonstration plant will be developed with a capacity of 1500 to 2000 liters. Efficiency will increase with size, with an ultimate goal of 60% conversion from green power to stored fuel.
The P2X Project, according to the KIT press release, gets its name because it focuses on technologies that convert power from renewable sources to energy storage materials, energy carriers, and energy-intensive chemical products (“Power-to-X”). The Project is government funded and currently involves 18 research institutions, 27 industrial companies, and three civil society organizations. It has a goal of reaching industrial maturity for a number of new technological developments within the next ten years.
The full KIT Press Release can be viewed here.
Two examples of peer-reviewed literature on agricultural impact, human resettlement, extreme weather and extinction trends include the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and Cornell University’s Impediments to inland resettlement under conditions of accelerated sea level rise (Geisler and Currens).
What is it and How Does it Work?
Although there are various methods for isolating atmospheric CO2, most of the DAC technology developed so far (including Climeworks’s) has focused on the application of reversible sorbents. The basic premise of this method is that ambient air is cycled through a filter that has been treated in such a way that it will chemically bind with the CO2 in the cycled air. The bound CO2 sticks to the filter—effectively removing it from the atmosphere—while the rest of the air passes through.
After the CO2 is bound, it must be collected in order to be repurposed or stored. Again, there are many ways to accomplish this, and every company does it differently, but the intention is similar: isolate the captured CO2 by first closing the filtration system’s circulation, and then breaking the chemical bonds between the CO2 and the filter with some combination of increasing heat and decreasing pressure. (The precise amount of heat required depends on the nature of the bonds, which depends on the sorbent used.) Once sufficient heat has been applied, the bonds holding the CO2 are broken, and the CO2 is released from the filter in a concentrated gas, at which point it can be collected. Because the sorbents are reversible, the same filter can be used for potentially thousands of iterations.
Sorbents can be aqueous (examples include hydroxides and amine solutions) or solid (alkali carbonates), with each possessing advantages and disadvantages in terms of sorption, energy required, and cost.
One of the main obstacles that DAC faces is that carbon dioxide in ambient air is ultra-diluted; its concentration is roughly 400ppm, or just .04% of the atmosphere. Therefore, to capture significant volumes of CO2, vast amounts of air must be cycled through the filters many times. This can make the capturing process expensive both financially and thermodynamically.
In terms of financial cost, DAC is still an embryonic technology, so the theoretical minimum is very speculative. It was initially estimated to be between $600 and $1000 per ton of CO2 removed. (The first estimate was determined by the American Physical Society in its 2011 paper “Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals,” and the second estimate was determined in a 2010 study conducted by MIT, Stanford, and UC-Berkeley titled “Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air.”) These numbers, however, have been disproved, since Climeworks eclipsed both by removing it for $550 in Switzerland—and it did so without benefiting from economies or scale or optimized production methods—so the theoretical minimum of DAC is still up for debate. DAC companies like Climeworks, Carbon Engineering, and Global Thermostat have all posited estimates in the $100-200 per ton range—with some as low as $50—assuming further investment and optimization.
Thermodynamically, DAC requires energy to push air through the filters, and to separate captured CO2 for collection. Again, there is natural variability depending on the specific technologies used, but, according to a 2015 article in Nature titled “Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions,” the energy required to capture one ton of CO2 would be approximately 12GJ. If this were extrapolated to a billion-ton scale, the amount would be larger than the capacity of the largest nuclear plant in the US. However, while the Climeworks’s Hinwil plant seems to corroborate this, Gebald and Wurzbacher maintain that they can decrease that number by 40% with investment, development, and scale.
How it Works
In Climeworks’s propriety carbon-capture system, the cycle starts with a large suction fan drawing ambient air into the Climeworks chamber. The chamber houses a cellulose fiber filter that has been treated with amines, so that when the suctioned air passes through the filter, the amines catch the CO2 in the air and chemically bind the gas molecules to the filter. The cellulose fiber of the filter acts like a sponge, increasing the filter’s surface area and maximizing the amount of CO2 absorbed each cycle. The rest of the air continues unobstructed back out into the atmosphere.
The process is repeated until the filter is fully saturated with CO2 (this can take two or three hours), at which point the fan is turned off and the chamber is closed, so that nothing can flow in or out. The CO2 is still stuck to the filter, so, in order for it to be collected, it must be released. To do that, the chamber is heated to around 100℃, and the pressure in the chamber is lowered to 200mbar; the combination of increased temperature and decreased pressure causes the CO2 molecules to break the chemical bonds, emptying the filter of CO2 and filling the chamber with a cloud of free-floating, concentrated gas. The gas is vacuumed out of the chamber and stored, and the chamber is then re-opened, the suction fan switched back on, and the whole process started over again.
The collected CO2 gas is high quality and pure, so it can be used in any number of ways: bubbled into soft drinks, injected into oil fields, vented into greenhouses. This is also the point at which it can be transported underground and sequestered.
Why Modular Carbon Capture Systems Are Advantageous
Climeworks plants are modular—depending on the number of suction fans (1, 3, 18, or 36), a plant can be the size of a large walk-in closet or a two-deep stack of industrial shipping containers. Climeworks even offers a fully-automated, wheeled demonstration plant that is small enough to be completely mobile.
The modularity allows for Climeworks to scale a plant up or down depending on the needs of the client. Gebald said, “our plan is to offer carbon removal to individuals, corporations, and organizations as a means to reverse their non-avoidable carbon emissions.”
The fact that the plants are modular gives them great adaptability in terms of their location. This is advantageous in two ways: 1) the size of the plant can be scaled to the amount of available land, so DAC can be implemented even if space is restricted; and 2) a plant can be located in order to benefit from its environment. For example, the Climeworks plants in Hinwil, Switzerland and Hellisheidi, Iceland are both placed where there is ample ambient heat: in Hinwil, the plant is on the roof of waste incinerators; in Heillisheidi, the plant is on the grounds of a geothermal power plant.
A part of the World Resources Institute, Greenhouse Gas Protocol establishes the definitive standards for public- and private-sector operations to measure and manage their GHG emissions.
The GHG Protocol differentiates between three different emission “scopes” for a business/government/etc.
Helena’s purpose is to identify solutions to global problems and implement them through projects. Each project is a separate, unique effort.
Sometimes, we believe that the most effective method to implement a project is through non-profit action. These projects are designated as “non-profit” on their associated project pages on this website. This page is an example of such a project.
In these cases, Helena operates projects that are led and funded through non-profit entities, including Helena Group Foundation. Helena Group Foundation is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization formed to conceive and operate projects that solve important global issues for the benefit of society.