PHOTO: Arctic Circle Assembly/Creative Commons.
Lauded as the world’s largest operational system for carbon capture and storage, the Orca plant in Iceland has been up and running since 8 September 2021.
Named for the Icelandic word ‘orka’ meaning ‘energy’, the plant combines the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, facilitated by the Swiss start-up Climeworks AG, and its storage deep underground by the Icelandic start-up CarbFix, led by CEO Dr Edda Sif Aradóttir (pictured).
As the UNESCO Science Report (2021) explains, this process relies on research published in 2016, when scientists from Australia, Denmark, France, Iceland, the UK and USA reported a successful attempt to dispose of CO2 permanently as environmentally benign carbonate minerals in subsurface basaltic rocks (Matter et al., 2016). Within two years, 95% of the anthropogenic CO2 injected in a storage formation was mineralized, contradicting the prevailing view that such a process would take up to 1 000 years (Hertig et al., 2021; Box 11.2).
The report relates how the successful pilot project was run at the CarbFix injection site near Reykjavik. Massive volumes of ‘sour gas’ emissions containing high levels of contaminants such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide were captured after being released together with geothermal fluids from the Hellisheidi power plant. These emissions were then mixed with water and pumped back from whence they came.
This technique has since become commonplace. The CarbFix method is used to clean and store underground one-third of the annual 40 000 tonnes of CO2 flowing through gas turbines. Through the same process, two-thirds of the released hydrogen sulphide are also safely deposited in the subsurface.
CarbFix will not solve the world’s problem of greenhouse gas emissions, of course. One severe limitation of the method described above is the need for substantial quantities of water and the presence of porous basaltic rock. Both are widely available on the continental margins, such as in Iceland and the Pacific Northwest of the USA, but are rare or absent in other parts of the world.
The cost of carbon capture and storage is another barrier. The Orca plant cost US$ 10–15 million to build and could draw down 4 000 tonnes of CO2 each year when operating at full capacity. To put that number into context, this is equivalent to the emissions from about 870 cars, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Climeworks aims to reach a carbon offset purchase price of $200–300 per tonne of CO2 by 2030 and $100 to $200 by the mid-2030s, once fully operational (Sigurdardottir and Rathi, 2021). With European carbon prices at about US$ 50 per ton of CO2 equivalent under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme , the penalty for emitting could soon exceed the cost of carbon capture.
Progress in this field will call for a close partnership between science, technology and industry. CarbFix itself is the brainchild of four institutions: Reykjavik Energy, the University of Iceland, the National Centre for Scientific Research in Toulouse (France) and Columbia University (USA).
Despite these advances, the high-tech industry of carbon capture and storage is still in its infancy. All of the pathways defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for limiting global warming to 1.5°C rely on technological advances in CO2 removal from the atmosphere to augment the natural process of carbon sequestration (IPCC, 2018). However, research output on carbon capture and storage has one of the lowest growth rates (6% between 2011 and 2019) among 56 sustainability topics studied by UNESCO, with a mere 2 501 publications on this topic produced around the world in 2019 (Straza and Schneegans, 2021).
Output by Icelandic researchers on carbon capture and storage has even declined slightly, from 21 publications over 2012–2015 to 16 publications over 2016–2019, according to original research by UNESCO.
As the UNESCO Science Report (2021) observes, Iceland plans to become carbon-neutral by 2040. It has a high carbon tax and provides its population with virtually carbon-free electricity and heating from its vast geothermal and hydro-electric resources. The government plans to take this logic a step farther by raising the existing carbon tax by 10% annually and banning (new) diesel and gasoline cars after 2030 (Hertig, 2021).
Norway’s carbon tax is also among the highest in the world. Norway plans to meet its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 by expanding electrification of road transportation – no other country has more electric cars on the road – and making ‘climate, environment and clean energy’ one of four long-term research priorities, among other measures. With its current plans to intensify oil exploitation in the North Sea, the strategy of offsetting 40% of its greenhouse gas emissions through the procurement of carbon credits, as permitted under the Paris Agreement, will not suffice. The country will also need to invest massively in compensatory mechanisms like carbon capture and storage (Hertig, 2021).
The Norwegian state enterprise Gassnova is working closely with industry to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage can be done safely on a large scale (Hertig, 2021; Box 11.1). Norwegian output on this topic is consequential, even if it has dropped slightly from 533 (2012–2015) to 470 (2016–2019) publications. It ranked seventh worldwide in terms of volume over 2016–2019.
The USA produces the most publications on carbon capture and storage but its own publications have declined from 2 507 (2012–2015) to 2 098 (2016–2019). Output has also been declining in five of the other top ten countries for this topic, namely Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. High-income countries’ dominance of research on carbon capture and storage is waning, as upper middle-income countries like China develop this technology (see figure). China is even poised to take the lead, its publications in this field having surged from 1 300 (2012 2015) to 2 049 (2016–2019) [Straza and Schneegans, 2021].
Switzerland has boosted its own output on this topic by 45% from 128 (2012–2015) to 185 (2016–2019) publications. Over 2016–2019, Switzerland accounted for 2% of global output on carbon capture and storage, compared to 0.2% for Iceland and 5.1% for Norway (Straza and Schneegans, 2021).
In August 2019, the Swiss government revised its target for carbon neutrality to 2050. Hertig (2021) observed that, ‘should the Swiss adopt the 2050 target for carbon neutrality in a popular initiative… parliament will be required to adopt the requisite measures to reach this target, such as by expanding the existing incentive tax on thermal fuels to include motor fuels’. In June 2021, the Swiss population voted by a slim majority (51.6%) to reject the CO2 law.
Contribution by income group to global academic publishing on carbon capture and storage, 2011–2019 (%)
Source : UNESCO Science Report (2021), using Scopus (Elsevier) data treated by Science-Metrix and visualized by Values Associates
For details, read the chapter on the members of the European Free Trade Association and that on global trends in sustainability science in the UNESCO Science Report (2021)
Hertig, H. P. (2021) European Free Trade Association. In: UNESCO Science Report: the Race Against Time for Smarter Development. Schneegans, S.; Straza, T. and J. Lewis (eds). UNESCO Publishing: Paris.
IPCC (2018) Global Warming of 1.5°C. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Geneva.
Matter, J. M.; Stute, M.; Snæbjörnsdottir, S. Ó.; Oelkers, E. H.; Gislason, S. R.; Aradottir, E. S. et al. (2016) Rapid carbon mineralization for permanent disposal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Science, 352 (6291): 1312–1314. DOI.
Sigardardottir, Ragnhildur and Akshat Rathi (2021) World’s Largest Carbon-Sucking Plant Starts Making Tiny Dent in Emissions. Bloomberg Green, 8 September 2021.
Straza, T. and S. Schneegans (2021) Are we using science for smarter development? In: UNESCO Science Report: the Race Against Time for Smarter Development. Schneegans, S.; Straza, T. and J. Lewis (eds). UNESCO Publishing: Paris.