Sustainability-in-Tech : World’s Largest Carbon Vacuuming Plant Opens

The world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) plant, dubbed ‘Mammoth’ (which can suck polluting carbon from the air to help tackle global warming) has started operating in Iceland. 

Mammoth 

Started on the 28th June 2022 and now completed and operating, Mammoth was designed to remove 36,000 tons of carbon from the air per year – the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars petrol-fuelled cars from the road.  

Its creators and operators, Climeworks, based in Switzerland, say it has been built for multi-megaton capacity in the 2030s, and should deliver gigaton capacity by 2050. 

Global Warming and Climate Change 

Mammoth is designed to directly remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere for climate change mitigation and to meet global climate targets. The challenge, as regards to global warming and the resulting climate change, is that in order to keep the temperature at (or below) the maximum 1.5°C threshold increase, many believe that measures to reduce our carbon footprint are not enough and active removal of CO₂ already in the atmosphere is needed. Climeworks says “we need to extract billions of tons of CO₂ between now and 2050”. 

DAC 

Mammoth, Climeworks’s second carbon capture plant (which is the largest in the world), involves using a geothermal power plant to provide the energy for the facility that vacuum-filters CO₂ from the air.  The filtered CO₂ is then stored in containers (DAC+S), stacked on top of each other. Finally, the CO₂ is ‘injected’ with ‘Carbfix’ and is transported deep underground, where it mineralizes in geological formations.  Climeworks says this process of storing the captured carbon underground in mineral form can keep it locked up (and out of the atmosphere) for “more than 10,000 years”. 

DAC+S Different From CCS? 

Climeworks days whereas DAC+S removes CO₂ directly from ambient air, other technologies to remove carbon, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), differs because it captures CO₂ from point sources of carbon dioxide (e.g., smokestacks of iron and steel factories) and then transports the captured CO₂ to a storage site, where it is sequestered. 

Controversial 

Using DAC technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere as a way of tackling global warming, however, is a controversial subject. Some of the criticisms and debates around it include: 

– DAC is expensive compared to other climate strategies like reforestation or industrial upgrades, raising concerns about the efficient use of limited financial resources. 

– DAC is energy-intensive, requiring significant amounts of clean energy. If powered by non-renewable energy, it could negate its environmental benefits. In the case of Mammoth in Iceland, however, natural geothermal power is being used. 

– Simply relying on DAC to save us might delay crucial direct emission reduction efforts due to the belief that technology alone can resolve climate change, a risk known as the “moral hazard.” 

– Effectively scaling DAC to impact atmospheric CO₂ levels would demand extensive infrastructure and substantial investment, posing significant logistical challenges. 

– The captured CO₂ must be securely stored to prevent leakage or used in ways that might still release it back into the atmosphere, thereby negating its effectiveness. Climeworks, however, describes its mineralisation and underground storage as a “permanent” solution. 

– DAC requires significant resources, potentially conflicting with other essential needs like agriculture and water supply, raising concerns about equitable impact distribution. 

– Deploying DAC responsibly and at scale requires robust policies and regulation to avoid potential negative environmental impacts and ensure effective climate mitigation. 

– Some operators (not Climeworks it should be stressed) use the CO₂ captured using DAC to inject into oil fields to increase the pressure within the reservoir to help push more oil to the surface – known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Some say this facilitates continued reliance on fossil fuels. 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The opening of the Mammoth DAC plant after 2 years of construction may be a milestone in the world of climate technology, reflecting both the innovation and the complexities inherent in modern environmental solutions. As the largest Direct Air Capture facility, set to remove 36,000 tons of CO₂ annually, this is a figure that represents a technological achievement and perhaps a call to industries and organisations worldwide to re-evaluate their environmental strategies. However, as the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars from the roads, this may not sound as though it can make a dent in the carbon problem, in the short term at least.

For any organisation, the potential of DAC technology to substantively reduce atmospheric CO₂ and help mitigate global warming can’t be ignored and is one battle-front in the war ahead. Although Mammoth may not be making a significant dent now, looking towards the future and aiming for gigaton removal by 2050, this technology could play much more of a part in future climate strategies. As such, this suggests a pathway for compliance with emerging environmental regulations and leadership in corporate sustainability. 

However, the broader implications of DAC, particularly in terms of scalability and dependency, suggest a balanced approach is needed. While Mammoth operates on geothermal energy, making it relatively sustainable, DAC technology in general is energy intensive.

Also, the example of Mammoth should serve as a reminder of the importance of not solely relying on carbon capture to offset emissions. The ‘moral hazard’ of depending too heavily on technological fixes could detract from essential efforts to directly reduce emissions through renewable energy adoption, energy efficiency improvements, and sustainable operational practices. For businesses, this means integrating DAC as one element of a holistic environmental strategy while reducing emissions at the source. 

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