Last month’s European carbon dioxide (CO2) supply shortage sent shockwaves through food and beverage markets as a combination of factors left manufacturers desperate for product.
“The CO2 shortage made us experience that the bubbles in our fizzy drinks are an exhaust gas from chemical plant,” says Climeworks’ Marketing Manager Valentin Gutknecht.
“I hope that this has also raised awareness that cleaner and more reliable alternatives for CO2 supply are also available.”
One of these alternatives is Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology.
Switzerland-based Climeworks pioneered and launched the world’s first commercial-scale direct air capture (DAC) plant in 2017, featuring a patented technology that filters CO2 from ambient air. The CO2 captured by Climeworks can be used to carbonate beverages or produce climate-neutral fuels and other materials.
Capturing CO2 locally for industrial uses enables customers to reduce their emissions and lessen their dependence on fossil fuels, as currently most industrial CO2 is transported from fossil point sources via truck to industries on site. It could also help some end-users like beverage bottling plants to avoid the worst effects of such CO2 supply shortages, by providing a level of self-sufficiency in their operations.
“We certainly don’t claim that we are an immediate solution to the whole industry’s problems, as building up capacities to delivers millions of tons of CO2 takes time,” explains Gutknecht. “We do, however, offer a real alternative to bottling companies who are looking for a cleaner and more reliable source of CO2.”
In comparison to other carbon capture technologies, a modular Climeworks plant can be employed almost anywhere. Direct air capture technology is capable of capturing CO2 from ambient air wherever atmospheric air is available and the gas is needed, Gutknecht says.
“We certainly don’t claim that we are an immediate solution to the whole industry’s problems…We do, however, offer a real alternative to bottling companies who are looking for a cleaner and more reliable source of CO2”
Climeworks has been developing the technology since 2009 and commissioned its first industrial-scale CO2 capture unit in late 2014 dubbed the ‘CO2 Collector’, which captures 50 tonnes of CO2 per year. Its plants capture atmospheric carbon with a filter; air is drawn into the plant and the CO2 within the air is chemically bound to the surface of a sorbent (the filter). Once the filter is saturated with CO2 it is heated (using mainly low-grade heat as an energy source) to around 100°C. The CO2 is then released from the filter and collected as concentrated CO2 gas, which can then be purified and delivered as high purity CO2 for carbonating beverages, for example.
“Our system is therefore especially attractive wherever both CO2 is needed and sources of low-grade heat are available,” enthuses Gutknecht.
Now patented, the technology has continued to develop in the last half-decade and Climeworks launched its first commercial plant in Hinwil, Switzerland back in 2017.
The company’s historic plant in Hinwil, on the outskirts of Zurich, is now supplying 900 tonnes of CO2 annually to a nearby greenhouse to help grow vegetables, providing a continuous and renewable source of product.
The technology’s capture credentials have been further proven at an installation in Iceland, where Climeworks has partnered with Reykjavik Energy to combine DAC technology for the first time with safe and permanent geological storage.
The EU-backed collaborative research project centres around one of the world’s largest geothermal power plants in Hellisheidi, Iceland, where CO2 is currently injected and mineralised at an industrial scale. Gutknecht explains, “Back in autumn 2017 we launched the world’s first carbon negative plant for direct air capture in Iceland. Close to Reykjavik, we run a pilot that uses geothermal heat to capture up to 50 tons of CO2 from air and then inject the gas in underground lava rock formations. In those formations, the CO2 then turns into stone within two years and is thus permanently removed from the atmosphere.”
“Those carbon insets are marketed to organisations and individuals who want to reverse their personal carbon footprint. As the results from the pilot have been promising we plan for a substantial scale up next year.”
With DAC’s credentials effectively proven, Climeworks is keen to point out that its technology could provide a cleaner and more reliable alternative for some beverage and bottling end-users – a message that this summer’s shortages have only heightened.
Gutknecht says, “It is an inevitable truth that by now there is so much CO2 in the atmosphere that the only way to limit global warming to save levels is by sucking it out of the air and thereby undo our past emissions. Technologies to do so have been around for several years. The beverage industry as a major consumer of CO2 is in a unique position to apply those important technologies at scale and thereby significantly support their further development.”
One month on from Europe’s CO2 supply crisis and the market is understandably still tight, while many question why CO2 cannot be simply ‘sucked out of the sky’.
With the level of CO2 in the atmosphere actually very minimal (around 500 parts-per-million) compared to widespread perception, such a feat is not as simplistic as it might seem. But Climeworks is doing everything it can to do just that – suck CO2 out of thin air. And at a time when shortages have brought supply chain issues into sharp focus, Gutknecht challenges, “If you don’t want your favourite beer or fizzy drinks company to let you down during the next World Cup, you should call them and ask if they are working with CO2 captured from air.”