World’s “largest” air vacuum fires up in Iceland, will suck CO2 from air and bury it

Why it matters: A new plant that sucks planet-warming carbon dioxide straight out of the air like a massive vacuum cleaner began operations this week in Hellisheiði, Iceland. And this thing is no joke – it’s being billed as the largest direct air capture facility on the planet.

The “Mammoth” plant is the latest creation from Swiss firm Climeworks. As the name suggests, it dwarfs the company’s previous effort in Iceland – the Orca plant, which started running in 2021. Mammoth has a planned capacity ten times greater than its little sibling.

The plant, which started running on May 8, essentially works by inhaling atmospheric air and running it through chemical filters that trap the CO2 molecules. The captured carbon dioxide can then be buried deep underground or used to create carbon-based products, according to CNN.

In Mammoth’s case, the climate culprit gases will be pumped into rock formations where they’ll be mineralized into solid stone – permanently locking the carbon away. Climeworks is teaming up with Icelandic firm Carbfix on this carbon sequestration process, taking advantage of Iceland’s plentiful geothermal energy to power the whole operation with clean electricity.

“Climeworks broke ground on Mammoth in June 2022. Only 18 months later, the core pieces of the plant have been built. The rest of 2024 will be dedicated to completing the plant’s buildout, adding the remaining 60 CO2 collector containers, and ramping up its operations. This phased initiation underscores Climeworks’ flagship modular technology design, facilitating the construction of plants of varying sizes,” the company said.

A sobering study from last year projected global CO2 emissions hitting new records, growing 1-2% from burning fossil fuels – far short of the steep reductions needed. Researchers warned the world remains on track to overshoot the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target, calling for urgent action as climate impacts intensify. Many experts insist we need to start actively scrubbing existing CO2 from the air, not just curbing new emissions.

Direct air capture is still highly expensive and energy-intensive compared to cutting emissions at the source. There are also concerns that the technology could give policymakers an excuse not to pursue difficult decarbonization policies, the report states.

Those concerns aside, Climeworks is doubling down on the promise of direct air capture. At full capacity, the modular Mammoth system with its 72 carbon collector units will be able to pull around 36,000 tons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere.

And that’s just the first step. Company reps say they aim to reach carbon removal costs of $300-350 per ton by 2030, down from over $1,000 currently. Their target is making it cheap enough at $100/ton to deploy direct air capture on a massive scale by 2050. That should help achieve the ambitious 1 billion tons of carbon removal per year by 2050 across a series of global plants.

Leave a Comment