In this informative and important podcast, Louise Charles, the Communications Manager at Climeworks (climeworks.com), discusses Climeworks’ critical mission: CO2 removal from the atmosphere.
Louise provides an overview of the history of Climeworks and how it came to be. She discusses CO2 collectors, and how their systems perform CO2 removal. As climate change is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels that release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, Climeworks is on a mission to help with CO2 removal from our atmosphere. The Climeworks Communications Manager discusses their mission in detail. The truth is, climate scenarios have shown that negative emissions are going to be necessary in order to manage the looming global warming crisis.
Louise talks about the many multiple uses for the collected CO2 and she details storage options and economic options as well, for countries who utilize their CO2 collection technology.
The technology advocate and Communications Manager discusses some of the upcoming, large-scale projects that will capture greater amounts of CO2, perhaps up to millions of tons, and how this volume of capture will impact the overall big picture so to speak. Ultimately, the world’s first commercial carbon removal technology will assist with the goal
of reaching for a negative emissions future.
Richard Jacobs: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with the future tech and future tech health podcast. I have Louise Charles, she’s the communications director at Climeworks, climeworks.com. Louise, thanks for coming. How are you doing?
Louise Charles: Very well. Thank you for having me on.
Richard Jacobs: Tell me about Climeworks, which I guess is short for climate works. What’s the premise of the company?
Louise Charles: So first it’s not quite short for climate works. That’s another company actually an NGO based on the US. So they are a customer around us, but they’re not actually related to us in any way. But the background of Clime works is that we were founded about a decade ago by two mechanical engineers, Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald. The company was originally founded as a spin-off from ETH to this west federal Institute for technology here in Switzerland. The two founders did the Ph.D. thesis on direct air capture, so capturing CO2 directly from the air and we’ve grown into a company of 70 employees since then.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. I had read the background a little bit. So direct air capture, if you could describe the process, but it works take CO2 out of the air and storage, I guess underground or other appropriate places.
Louise Charles: That’s right. So the way it works very simply put is that we build machines, we call these machines CO2 collectors. And the way a CO2 collector captures CO2 from the air is that we have a fan on the one side that draws air inside the collector. Inside there we have a filter material that is highly selective so it captures just CO2 on its surface. And you can think of the filter material a little bit like a sponge. So if you were to dunk a sponge into a bucket of water, then the sponge would fill up with water. And essentially the same thing happens with our filter material, fills up with CO2. And once it’s fully saturated, we close CO2 collector. It’s heated to around 100 degrees Celsius and the CO2 molecules thereby unstick from the filter material and can be collected. And once we’ve collected the CO2 through various things that can happen to it. So on the one hand, we sell that CO2 for use in the product as raw material and also to the drinks industry for drinks carbonation, to greenhouses to be used in fertilizer, to producers of renewable fuel. So they are all off-takers of CO2 as raw material. So either the CO2 is recycled if you like in a product or we take you to, and with our partners currently in Iceland, the CarbFix team, they take CO2 to mix with water. They pump it deep underground 700 meters and that there is a chemical reaction between this fizzy water centrally and the bustle rock that’s beneath Iceland and stone is formed. So the CO2 is mineralized and thereby permanently removed from the atmosphere. So these are the two use cases for the CO2 that we capture.
Richard Jacobs: So in Iceland, you doing the capture locally and then the storage locally or do you do the capture and then ship it to them in Iceland?
Louise Charles: No, everything’s done locally so that we have a pilot plant in Iceland and its capturing CO2 from Icelandic air and is stored locally and that’s the beauty of direct air capture. These machines can be built anywhere. There is a renewable energy source. And if we then want to store that CO2 that we capture then we need some sort of a storage option as well.
Richard Jacobs: What are the economics of Iceland doing this? Is it buying the CO2 from you then to storing it and how would the economics work for the country?
Louise Charles: So in Iceland, what we currently have there is a pilot project. It’s a small installation. We have one of our CO2 collectors out there and this stage is operating within the framework of the UNEU R&D project. So horizon 2020 and is funded through that.
Richard Jacobs: Oh, since CO2 is generated all over the world by many different emitters. It just seems like it’d be an interesting thing. I wonder if countries could choose to invest in a direct air capture investment that resides in another country because it’s still I guess would benefit that country or offset its emissions. So it seems to open up like an interesting economic model if possible given countries are interested in that. Created one place get rid of another.
Louise Charles: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So the beauty of this carbon dioxide removal is that it is relevant worldwide. So it’s exactly as you say, one can in one part of the world emit that CO2 and in another part of the world, then remove that equivalent amount of CO2 from the air and store it underground.
Richard Jacobs: Other countries that are willing to pay for this more than others. I mean there’s like, who would be a big payer or a buyer of this kind of service or is that part of the trouble that people are happy to admit and no one wants to pay to have it? It’s a question.
Louise Charles: Thankfully, slowly, slowly things are changing. So there are both corporations and NGOs, philanthropists and newly also individuals who want to physically remove the CO2 emissions from the air through direct air capture and through the combination of direct air capture and the underground storage of CO2. One of our very first customers for carbon dioxide removal was a father-son couple. They were planning an expedition to the South Pole. We wanted that expedition to be totally carbon neutral. And we’re of course aware that by traveling to the starting point for the expedition through those flights, there were missions that were created and they wanted to remove those emissions and so came to climb works and we were able then to capture that same amount of CO2 from air in the name and store it underground.
Richard Jacobs: What’s the approximate economics? If the individual person says, Hey, I want to buy a certain amount of storage, what does that look like? Is there literally pricing for the public if they wish to do something or for corporations?
Louise Charles: Yes, there is this pricing for the public. What we quite recently launched was a webshop, which is climeworks.shop and there we enable individuals to remove their travel emissions. And there are various pricing options. It’s a subscription model and there are three different options that can be chosen between the first starting at seven years a month on the higher one at 49 euros a month. So, depending on how much CO2 you want to be removed from air then there is the corresponding price for that and bespoke packages are also available.
Richard Jacobs: It’s a good thing that they’d be doing, but let’s say if they’re going to commit to a subscription of removing a certain amount of carbon every day for a period of times, do they get some kind of recognition or even a credit from their government, tax credit or something. If a corporation does this or individual does this, are you working on a system like that as a reward?
Louise Charles: Yes. So the individual choosing to purchase one of these subscriptions receives a certificate at the end of the year. And it’s clearly stated how much CO2 was then removed in that individual’s name per year.
Richard Jacobs: Any interest from particular countries on setting up something like this with all their citizens. It could be a good or a bad thing or a good or bad method. But allowing a tax on all their citizens that maybe is weighted depending on their age or their use or their family members or just the fact that they’re a citizen of a given country. The person would pay against offset their emissions.
Louise Charles: Conversations are ongoing. Can’t say anything too concrete yet. On a slightly higher level than just for the storage we have various governments very, very interested in direct air capture and supporting the further development of direct air capture technology amongst them is the Swiss government German government also and there are more and more very keen on exploring how they can help support the development and optimization of direct air capture.
Richard Jacobs: What are some of the numbers involved, you know, if there’s a big push for solar and wind use and other renewables, will direct air capture be needed in order to stop climate change or what are some of the big numbers that you’ve seen that talk about what’s going on?
Louise Charles: The big numbers, it depends a little bit on which source you take. But one often-cited source is the IPCC, the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Last October they came out with a report called the SR15 or the special report on 1.5 degrees. And there it outlined what the world will need to do to keep a temperature rise beneath 1.5 degrees. And there was very clearly stated that on the one hand, we will need a portfolio approach. So there’s not one solution that will be enough to sell that on its own. And Climeworks is very much of that opinion as well. We cannot do this alone. We’re just one of many, many solutions. But that IPCC special report clearly said that emissions, on the one hand, need to be reduced and drastically reduced, but that’s not enough to make those climate targets. And so on top of that, we will also need to be physically removing CO2 that already is in the air. And that’s where direct air capture comes in.
Richard Jacobs: Well, I’m sure they must be natural sinks of carbon on the earth even with those natural sinks, is it still, I mean, all these things still need to be done in order to prevent a worldwide temperature increase in the bubble point biopsy.
Louise Charles: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. So that brings me back to this portfolio thinking. So we very much need though, we need that carbon, those natural carbon sinks and we need to be preserving them so that they can function as they should in the years to come. We also need trees. We should stop cutting down trees. We should be planting more trees. And alongside that also further develop these technologies amongst which direct air capture as one further develop them so that they can, they can scale to the levels needed. This IPCC report again, the numbers that are huge. And it’s many billions of tons of CO2 per year that will need to be removed directly from the air, to stand a chance of making those climate targets.
Richard Jacobs: Indirect air capture is done using renewables. Even a gigantic right there, capture a machine using solar or wind or geothermal or does it have to be unfortunately traditional sources?
Louise Charles: No, we explicitly only use clean energy. So only renewable. We have 14 direct air capture projects across Europe currently and they’re using a mix of, some use geothermal, some use solar, and some use wind. We have two installations that are using energy from waste. So they sit on the top of a waste incineration plant, garbage incineration plant and through the burning of the rubbish energy is generated. And we’re able to harness that energy to power our direct air capture machines. So we do not use conventional fossil-based energy for our direct air capture.
Richard Jacobs: And I’m sure it varies, but what state the ballpark cost per ton? Just a question private, is it per cubic meter? Like what’s the metric by which they use to define it economically?
Louise Charles: So the cost to climeworks currently to capture, just the capture part, capturing one ton of CO2 is around about 600 US dollars. The storage part is as a fraction $15 or $20 of that 600 and the long-term cost target that we have is to bring one ton of kept CO2 down to 100 US dollars.
Richard Jacobs: What about the admitters themselves? Big commercial enterprises that emit CO2, the concentration that they emit is hundreds, thousands, millions of times higher than ambient air. They probably have scrubbers, but I mean, are there incentives to make smaller units that can be bolted onto existing imitators for a fee you could really capture like a whole bunch in a nice concentrated spot.
Louise Charles: So there what I think you’re referring to is point-source capture. So climeworks is not in any way involved in point source capture. So we focus really on direct air capture only as it is directly from the app. And this portfolio approach that I mentioned earlier, point source capture also has its role to play in there. So we also important technology that should be developed further in use worldwide but with points source capture, yes, the concentrations are higher of CO2 about 20% compared to 0.04% of CO2 in ambient air, but that we cannot remove CO2 already in there. So that preventing newly emitted CO2 from entering the atmosphere but with point source as you kind of go carbon negative, so you kind of remove historic CO2 emissions if you like from the air. So we would achieve at best carbon neutrality but not go carbon negative.
Richard Jacobs: You were saying that it’s not possible to get the CO2 down to the levels needed in the direct area around emitter around a point source?
Louise Charles: Yes and no. I mean in the air surrounding it, yes you could in there. In theory, you could have traditional CCS equipment on the flue gas stack capturing the newly admitted CO2 and a few hundred meters away, you could have additional direct air capture machines, which are capturing CO2 already in the air. So in theory yes. They could be combined in that way. So the point source is really from flue gas coming directly from the factory, let’s say. Whereas direct air captures these machines, you can build them anywhere and they’re removing the CO2 from ambient air.
Richard Jacobs: Gotcha. Has Iceland noticed any local effects or have any other countries that have direct air capture machines noticed what happens in the immediate vicinity of the plant? Anything happened differently because you’re going negative essentially versus the ambient of the amount of CO2 two in the air. Is there anything that they noticed that happens to the local flora fauna?
Louise Charles: No, there’s a negligible impact there. And CO2 diffuses so fast in the atmosphere that the concentration is more or less the same worldwide.
Richard Jacobs: Oh, it’s too bad. It felt really good to be right there in the air, somehow just felt a lot better and people experienced that. That’s what I was hoping.
Louise Charles: I think that may be to do with the other natural surroundings there and lack of large cities and heavy industry perhaps.
Richard Jacobs: Yeah. Like in a greenhouse. It kind of feels like that. So that’s what I was wondering, but Oh well, so are the economics such that you said that these plants are powered by renewables, which is great. So I mean, how many theoretically could be built, should be built and at what scale? How much will this contribute to reducing our carbon emissions to the right levels? What’s the future hold for crime works? How much more needs to be done?
Louise Charles: What the future holds, time will tell. What needs to be done is a lot, a lot, a large, large scale-up. So in the last decade, we have achieved quite a nice scale up. So when I found this first began, they were in a laboratory setting at the university capturing just a few milligrams of CO2 from the air. 10 years later, we’re now building large industrial direct air capture plants, which are capturing many thousands of tons of CO2 from the air. So the scale at there has been nice and the challenge lies now in replicating that same scale-up. So going from building plants that capture thousands of tons to plants, capturing many hundreds of thousands or even millions of tons.
Richard Jacobs: What’s the anticipated timeline of being able to really have a large plant and the scale is whole effort up.
Louise Charles: So we have a goal admittedly very ambitious goal of capturing 1% of global cot emissions by 2025. So that’s the star that we are following for now and once that’s achieved then the scale-up will continue. And we will, we will do our best to scale direct air capture to the skills needed to become then truly climate-relevant.
Richard Jacobs: Is there any worry that as you guys get better at doing your job that other countries may not see what you’re doing and say, look, things are getting better. We don’t need to try as hard. I mean, it seems like you’d have to really trumpet what you’re doing so that no one gets the idea that things aren’t as bad and let their foot off the gas essentially.
Louise Charles: Yeah. That’s very much something we’ve been very aware of in the last years and we refer to it as the moral hazard. Especially with various climate reports that have come out, the IPCC that I mentioned earlier, being one of them, they’re making very, very clear that it’s not an excuse to keep emitting and that really to make these climate targets, we need to drastically reduce emissions. And on top of that also remove CO2 from the air so the agencies are being better and better understood worldwide and less and less being used as an excuse to continue to emit.
Richard Jacobs: That’s great. Any ancillary technologies or add-ons that you see are in the lab but will be maybe available students who help this effort.
Louise Charles: Not from climeworks side. We’ll continue to focus on our direct air capture for now, but it will be further and further development, further optimized. We have eight generations of the technology planned. We’ve brought two of them online already and with quite short innovation cycles every year to be coming out with a newer version or an optimized generation of direct air capture technology. So keep an eye on the climeworks website.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Very good. Is the best way for people to find out more is to go to climeworks.com and anything else?
Louise Charles: That’s right. Climeworks.com with general information about the company and the various uses for that CO2 and for those interested in turning the own CO2 emissions in stone than they can go to climeworks.shop, there they will find all the information they needed.
Richard Jacobs: Well, that’s great. Well, Louise, thank you for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.
Louise Charles: Thank you very much for having me.
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