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The world's largest vacuum cleaner will suck air pollution; see how it works

The world's “largest” plant designed to suck planet-warming pollution from the atmosphere like a giant vacuum began operating in Iceland on Wednesday (8).

“Mammoth” is the second commercial direct air capture plant opened by Swiss company Climeworks in the country and is 10 times larger than its predecessor, Orca, which began operating in 2021.

Direct air capture, or DAC, is a technology designed to suck in air and remove carbon using chemicals. The carbon can then be injected deep into the ground, reused, or turned into solid products.

Climeworks plans to transport the carbon underground, where it will be naturally turned into stone, trapping the carbon permanently. The company is working in partnership with the Icelandic company Carbfix for this so-called capture process.

The entire operation will be powered by Iceland's abundant and clean geothermal energy.

Next-generation climate solutions like DAC are receiving more attention from governments and private industry as humans continue to burn fossil fuels. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which warms the planet, reached a record level in 2023.

As the planet continues to warm – with devastating consequences for humans and nature – many scientists say the world needs to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere in addition to rapidly reducing fossil fuels.

But carbon removal technologies like DAC are still controversial. They have been criticized for being expensive, energy-intensive and unproven at scale. Some climate advocates are also concerned that they will divert attention from policies to reduce fossil fuels.

This technology “is fraught with uncertainty and ecological risks,” said Lili Fuhr, director of the fossil economy program at the Center for International Environmental Law, speaking about carbon capture in general.

Climeworks began building Mammoth in June 2022, and the company claims it is the largest factory of its kind in the world. It has a modular design with space for 72 “collection containers” – the vacuum parts of the machine that capture carbon from the air – which can be stacked on top of each other and moved easily. There are currently 12 of them in place and more will be added in the coming months.

Mammoth will be able to extract 36,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year at full capacity, according to Climeworks. This is equivalent to taking about 7,800 gasoline-powered cars off the road for a year.

Climeworks did not provide an exact cost for each ton of carbon removed, but said it was closer to $1,000 per ton than $100 per ton — the latter of which is widely seen as a key threshold for making the technology affordable and accessible. viable.

As the company increases the size of its factories and reduces costs, the goal is to reach $300 to $350 per ton by 2030, before reaching $100 per ton around 2050, said Jan Wurzbacher, co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks, on a call with reporters.

The new plant is “an important step in the fight against climate change”, said Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh. It will increase the size of equipment to capture carbon pollution.

But, he cautioned, this is still a small fraction of what is needed.

All of the world's carbon removal equipment is only capable of removing about 0.01 million metric tons of carbon per year, a far cry from the 70 million tons per year needed by 2030 to meet global climate goals, according to the International Energy Agency.

There are already much larger DAC factories in the works of other companies. Stratos, currently under construction in Texas, for example, is designed to remove 500,000 tons of carbon per year, according to Occidental, the oil company behind the plant.

But there may be a problem. Occidental claims that the captured carbon will be stored at depth, but its website also refers to the company's use of the captured carbon in a process called “enhanced oil recovery.” This involves pushing carbon into wells to flush out hard-to-reach remnants of oil – allowing fossil fuel companies to extract even more from aging oilfields.

It's this type of process that has some critics concerned that carbon removal technologies could be used to prolong the production of fossil fuels.

But for Climeworks, which is not linked to fossil fuel companies, the technology has huge potential and the company says it has big ambitions.

Jan Wurzbacher, the company's co-founder and co-CEO, said Mammoth is just the latest stage in Climeworks' plan to increase up to 1 million tons of carbon removal per year by 2030 and 1 billion tons by 2050.

Plans include potential DAC factories in Kenya and the United States.

Source: CNN Brasil

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