Will This Carbon Sucking Machine Save The Planet?

The first commercial prototype is currently capturing carbon dioxide to grow veggies.

June 8, 2017
climeworks carbon sucking machine
Photograph courtesy of Climeworks

The majority of environmental news lately has been far from uplifting—massive collapsing ice shelves in Antarctica, flooding in the global seed vault, and President Trump deciding to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. We could go on, but for the sake of your blood pressure, we won’t. 

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Amidst the climate chaos, however, there’s some pretty awesome news: The Swiss company Climeworks has just opened the world’s first commercial plant outside of Zurich that captures carbon dioxide from the air and then sells it to a buyer—in this case, a nearby greenhouse that grows vegetables including cucumbers and tomatoes (CO2 acts as a fertilizer and can apparently boost veggie yields by 20 percent). 

The plant is estimated to capture about 900 tons of CO2 per year—the amount released by 200 cars.

Related: 9 Little Things You Can Do To Fight Climate Change Every Single Day

Here’s what the process looks like, according to an article in Science: “The plant sits on top of a waste heat recovery facility that powers the process. Fans push air through a filter system that collects CO2. When the filter is saturated, CO2 is separated at temperatures above 100 degrees Celsius. The gas is then sent through an underground pipeline to a greenhouse operated by Gebrüder Meier Primanatura AG to help grow vegetables.”

climeworks greenhouse diagram
Photograph courtesy of Climeworks

Beyond just feeding veggies, there are a variety of potential uses for the carbon dioxide Climeworks captures: they can sell it to the food and beverage industry where it can be used to carbonate drinks, use it to produce synthetic renewable fuels (which they’re already doing with Audi), and store it underground to reduce the overall CO2 content of the atmosphere.

Related: How Organic Gardens Help Fight Global Warming

We know what you’re thinking—this is just one plant and will hardly make a difference in the global climate. And yes, you’d be correct. However, Climeworks doesn’t plan to stop at just one plant. The company’s co-founders say they currently have the ability to produce 150 CO2 collectors per year, a number that will increase over time with additional resources and funding; and that their overall goal is to capture 1% of total global CO2 emissions by the year 2025. 

This goal, according to Climeworks, is meant to help with the Paris Agreement’s central aim of “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” To achieve this, the company says, investing in renewable energy alone will not be enough—actual CO2 removal from the atmosphere must occur. 

A potential downside of capturing CO2 from the air is that it can be very pricey. But, according to a Bloomberg article, Climeworks has won financial support from the Swiss government, Zurich Cantonal Bank, and the European Union—so we'll take that as a good sign. 

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