This is an audio transcript of the Tech Tonic podcast episode: ‘Climate tech to save the planet: Out of thin air

Kári Helgason
Sometimes I ask myself, what the hell am I doing studying this very unexciting molecule of CO₂? Spending all my time thinking about . . . (Laughs)

Pilita Clark
Kári Helgason is a 39-year-old scientist working in Iceland. You’re unlikely to have heard of him. He’s not famous. He hasn’t won any Nobel Prizes. But who knows? He might one day. Because when it comes to climate change and the problem of all that excess climate-altering CO₂ in the atmosphere, he matters. Still, getting into climate science was never really Kári’s life ambition.

Kári Helgason
It’s also a question of, you know, not what you want to do, but what you need to do.

Pilita Clark
In fact, as a teenager, Kári was inspired by the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. He admired Carl Sagan, and like them, Kári’s gaze was firmly turned up to the stars.

Kári Helgason
You know, for me, back then, planet Earth was sort of an insignificant speck of dust somewhere, you know, in the corner of the cosmos, right? And I was just interested in everything else. And I couldn’t believe that all my friends were, you know, interested in only things that were like earthbound. For me that’s like being not interested in 99.999 per cent of everything else.

Pilita Clark
The climate crisis changed all that. You see there were things happening in Iceland. The kind of things we used to see only in sci-fi films, things that Kári believed could potentially really tackle the climate crisis. But it meant forgetting about the stars and focusing on that one tiny molecule, CO₂. You know, the one that Kári described as unexciting.

Kári Helgason
You know, if you take it to a quantum level, it’s a pretty standard molecule, really. It’s pretty well understood. There are, there are not many mysteries to be solved.

Pilita Clark
It’s not a boring molecule, though. I mean, it’s the most important one in the world isn’t it?

Kári Helgason
Yeah. But it’s not particularly exciting.

Pilita Clark
But there are plenty of people across the world who are excited about Kári’s work. That’s because excess CO₂ in the atmosphere is causing the world to heat up and our climate to change, threatening to make our one and only home, planet Earth, unlivable. And across the world, many people are putting their faith in technology to save the day. And that very much includes the kind of technology that Kári is working on.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I’m Pilita Clark, and this is Tech Tonic from the Financial Times, a podcast series about how technology is changing the world. You don’t need me to tell you the clock is ticking on climate change. Scientists say that the next few years are critical if we want to get a grip on global warming. We need to nearly halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and bring them down to virtually zero by 2050. A lot of people say we can’t do that without a lot more new technology. But is that really true? In this series, you’ll hear about some terrific innovations, some extraordinary projects and ideas are being put to the test. The question is, will any of them be scaled up in time? Will they ever become commercially viable? Or is emerging climate tech just an expensive distraction that’s eating up time we can’t afford to waste? Is technology really the solution to the climate change crisis? Now I’ve spent a big chunk of my career writing about climate change business and the environment. A lot of that reporting has focused on the things we need to do to cut down on the billions of tons of carbon we’re spewing into the atmosphere every year — phasing out fossil fuels like coal and oil, investing in clean energy, shifting to electric vehicles, protecting forests. But those are difficult things to do. They mean overturning economies that have been based on fossil fuels for more than a century. So it’s no wonder that there’s a different, seductively simple solution that’s capturing people’s imaginations.

Voices of several men
Carbon capture. Carbon capture. Carbon capture and storage. We are putting a big bet, as you know, on carbon capture and storage. Direct air capture technology.

Pilita Clark
If the problem is that we’ve been taking too much carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the air, why not reverse that process? Take carbon out of the air and put it back in the ground?

Kári Helgason
Hello. Hello.

Pilita Clark
Hi, I’m Pilita.

Kári Helgason
Pilita. Kári.

Pilita Clark
Great to see you.

Kári Helgason
Welcome.

Pilita Clark
Thank you.

Kári Helgason
Yeah. Sorry I’m a bit late.

Pilita Clark
No problem at all . . . It’s the idea of capturing and burying CO₂ in the ground that took me to meet Kári Helgason, the one time astrophysicist we heard at the start of this show. I met Kári outside Reykjavik in Iceland. The landscape there is barren and treeless, and it looks like a film set from the Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian. I’m half expecting to see Matt Damon walk out of here because it really looks like a Martian landscape.

Kári Helgason
Yeah, I know, I sometimes quote that movie when people ask me how to solve the climate change and to say, we have to science the shit out of this thing. (Laugh)

Pilita Clark
It turns out Iceland is the perfect place for burying CO₂, geologically speaking.

Kári Helgason
Iceland is pretty much all made up of basaltic lava, which has these really nice chemical properties that it has these metals that bind with CO₂ and form these stable carbonate minerals.

Pilita Clark
Basically, this is what Kári and his team at a company called CarbFix do. They turn carbon dioxide into stone. And the big breakthrough that CarbFix came up with was figuring out a way to do what nature does in terms of capturing and storing carbon much, much faster.

Kári Helgason
Yeah. So nature has regulated the CO₂ in the atmosphere for millions of years by storing carbon in rocks, and most of the Earth’s CO₂ is actually stored in rocks, but it does so pretty slowly. So what we figured out is a way to speed up the process and accelerate what nature does and do so not in the matter of millennia, but in the matter of months and years.

Pilita Clark
The first step in that process is to combine the carbon with water, to make essentially fizzy water.

Kári Helgason
We make sparkling water out of it, and we inject this carbonated water into the basaltic bedrock. So we’re injecting water constantly into the ground. And then we take the CO₂ and we sparge the water, much like in a soda stream machine. And upon entry into the basaltic bedrock, the CO₂ is fully dissolved in the water, and it doesn’t form bubbles so it doesn’t leak up. And there it starts interacting with the bedrock and forming stable carbonate minerals biochemistry.

Pilita Clark
And the idea is that it stays there pretty much forever, correct?

Kári Helgason
Yeah. So once you’ve formed these stable carbonate minerals, which are essentially, you know, crystals filling up the pores of the rocks, I mean, and you’ve verified that this actually is happening, then you don’t need any long term monitoring. You basically can walk away free. You know, there’s not much that is more permanent than stone, right?

Pilita Clark
OK. So I was pretty impressed by this stage. Such a neat and simple way of getting rid of CO₂ using nature’s own processes. It’s made even neater by the fact that CarbFix is using renewable geothermal energy to power this accelerated process of turning CO₂ into stone. In other words, very little carbon is emitted in the process. And there are many places in the world which have the same geological make-up as Iceland, which means it’s a technology that could be replicated the world over. Still, something was bothering me. This is a highly volcanic country. Are you absolutely sure that there couldn’t be any kind of tremors or any sort of eruptions that would basically undo all of the work that it’s taken to inject this CO₂ down under the ground?

Kári Helgason
I mean, volcanic eruptions are basically a part of the long carbon cycle. So they are, you know, normal. It’s, you know, it is not very likely that it happens exactly where you have been injecting.

Pilita Clark
So basically, we’re counting on the Earth’s tectonic plates to be on our side and all CarbFix needs is water, the right kind of rock and a steady supply of CO₂. And Kári says that CO₂ can come in theory from anywhere in the world.

Kári Helgason
This is, sounds when people hear it for the first time, it sounds pretty sci-fi. But, you know, it’s, it’s what’s happening already in northern Europe, and the European Union is very serious about building up these transport networks of CO₂, both by a pipeline and by a ship.

Pilita Clark
Kári paints a picture of a world where instead of tankers and pipelines moving oil around the planet, they’d be moving CO₂ to places like Iceland where it can be buried.

Kári Helgason
People, you know, hear about, OK, so we’re moving CO₂ from Europe to Iceland and think, that’s crazy. I mean, there is crazy infrastructure that got us into the mess in the first place. So we need big solutions to get us out of this mess.

Pilita Clark
But how many carbon emissions are involved in shipping over that CO₂ to Iceland?

Kári Helgason
Depends on the fuel you use for the ship. But in the worst-case scenario, it’s about a couple of per cent or a few per cent of the total cargo carried. So, I mean, yes, there is emissions associated with moving the CO₂, but the carbon budget, if you will, works out pretty well.

Pilita Clark
And how many tonnes of CO₂ are you sticking down underground at the moment?

Kári Helgason
At the moment it’s probably around 17,000 tonnes per year. So from when we started operating, we’ve injected something like 100,000 tonnes of CO₂. Now in the grand scheme of things, that is a drop in the ocean.

Pilita Clark
OK. So that really is a drop in the ocean. A tiny one. Don’t forget that we’re pumping billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, not tens of thousands. So can the technology involved in turning CO₂ into stone underground really keep up? Just the sheer scale of what needs to be done is daunting. And there’s also the question of where the CO₂ comes from. Right now, carbon capture tech is mostly used to capture emissions from fossil fuel burning power stations or industrial plants. So that’s stopping more CO₂ from going into the air. But it doesn’t tackle the billions of tonnes of carbon already floating around in the atmosphere. That problem. Getting rid of CO₂ already in the air. Took me to another company also in Iceland. It’s called Climeworks, and it’s doing something really unusual. At a facility it calls Orca, the company is sucking CO₂ straight out of the ambient air.

Bryndís Nielsen
It’s not often that you get to feel a part of something that might actually do some good in the world.

Pilita Clark
Climeworks communication director Bryndís Nielsen showed me around.

Bryndís Nielsen
We can go in there. Sure. But the interesting bits are outside. This is direct air capture, which means that the, the magic is happening outside from the ambient air.

Pilita Clark
Yeah. So this is the world’s largest operational direct air capture unit.

Bryndís Nielsen
Yeah. It is and is the first direct air capture and storage facility company in the world . . . 

Pilita Clark
That’s operating . . . 

Bryndís Nielsen
Yeah, it’s in commercial operations right now.

Pilita Clark
Like CarbFix, the Orca plant runs on electricity generated by a nearby geothermal plant. We’re standing in front of this extremely exciting direct air capture unit. It’s like a collection of structures the size of shipping containers stuck on concrete blocks. Each of them have what looks like a gigantic Venetian blind on the front. At the back there, what looks like industrial fans but tell us exactly what’s going on here. How are these things managing to suck in and extract carbon dioxide from this extremely clean Icelandic air?

Bryndís Nielsen
Well, these are collector containers, as we call them. All are equipped with specialised filters inside of them. So you have the fans on the other side, which pull in the ambient air, and then you have a specific filter that filters out the CO₂. Once the filters full, you, of course, need to release it. So that’s the desorption phase. And then there’s an automatic door that closes off that particular compartment, and you heat it up to around 100°C around the point of boiling water, which releases the CO₂, which is then sucked into the processing haul and then sent via pipes to the injection wells.

Pilita Clark
Those injection wells belong to CarbFix just across the road from the Orca plant. One bit of this operation is sucking CO₂ out of the air and the other is burying it. Can you tell us how long does it take to extract a teacup of carbon dioxide?

Bryndís Nielsen
That’s a tricky question. Well, I can say that each collector container gathers 500 tons of CO₂ per year. How to divide that into teacups. It’s maybe a little bit beyond my mathematical abilities, unfortunately.

Pilita Clark
So each container is removing more than a ton of CO₂ every day. But we’re back to the same issue. It’s a drop in the ocean. There are plans to scale up. Not far from the Orca plant, diggers were busily laying the foundations for a much bigger sister plant called Mammoth, with nearly 10 times the capacity of Orca. And carbon removal companies are springing up all over the world. But are we all supposed to have carbon capture plants in our backyards? Is it commercially viable? And who’s going to fund this? Where’s the money coming from to make it happen on a global scale? I came away with many, many questions.

Christoph Beuttler
My name is Christoph Beuttler, and I’m head of climate policy at Climeworks.

Pilita Clark
Luckily, Christoph was available to answer my questions. He wasn’t at Climeworks Orca plant in Iceland when I visited because he’s based in Switzerland where Climeworks is headquartered. So we’re putting about 40bn tons into the air. So in a way, isn’t what you’re trying to do a bit like trying to empty an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a teaspoon?

Christoph Beuttler
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. But, and that’s a big but, so it’s a new technology. And there are several ways of removing CO₂ from the atmosphere. So one is you use biomass.

Pilita Clark
That means plants and trees that absorb CO₂ naturally from the air.

Christoph Beuttler
The problem is we would need about three planets of current tree coverage to solve the problem with afforestation. The same principle.

Pilita Clark
In other words, we’d need many, many Amazon rainforests.

Christoph Beuttler
Yes. So direct air capture, it’s not the silver bullet, but we can already see, and that’s in line with climate science, that we will need all of these solutions in addition to more emissions reductions.

Pilita Clark
So what you’re saying is that direct air capture is the best type of carbon removal technology that we have at the moment. But just going back to the swimming pool, if that’s the equivalent of the annual carbon dioxide emissions a year. The latest UN climate science reports are making it clear that we’ve basically got to empty nearly half that pool in the next eight years if we’re to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. So wouldn’t it be better, in a way, if the millions of dollars going into direct air capture were instead directed to finding a way to cut those annual emissions?

Christoph Beuttler
That’s a good question. And I think the answer to that is the millions of dollars should go into cutting the emissions, but we will have to find a few million well, actually billion dollars more, to go into removing emissions. We have to do both. So getting to zero is impossible without removal. So say it will cost us $200 per ton to do that. That’s 2 per cent of global GDP. And I think that is the price we will have to pay for, you know, cleaning up. And it’s also not a price that seems very high, to be honest.

Pilita Clark
The problem is because this is such new technology. It currently costs a lot more than $200 for Climeworks to remove a ton of carbon. And that means the company has to charge its clients much higher prices, in some cases as much as $1,100 a ton. That’s expensive. For comparison, if you’re a company trying to offset your carbon emissions, you can buy carbon credits for well under $10 a tonne. Still, Climeworks does have some really big clients — UBS, Microsoft, Swiss Re, even the rock band Coldplay. In fact, Coldplay signed up to offset carbon emissions from their latest tour. But most companies and rock bands can’t afford Climeworks’ prices. So for now, the company is benefiting from growing government support.

Christoph Beuttler
They are really, really throwing money at it? We are really also seeing it in climate policy and in government funding that governments are reacting, and that they are putting serious money behind it.

Pilita Clark
But here’s my take, that’s not a long term, sustainable business model. When do you think that Climeworks might become profitable?

Christoph Beuttler
And I would say that the main aim of Climeworks is not to make a profit. Obviously, we have investors, and we will need to make a profit, and we will make a profit soon. But let me just paint the picture, where we are with this is this is a seller’s market, and this will remain a seller’s market for the foreseeable future because the precise nature of the problem is that we will need a lot more removal than we can put on the market. And it’s a very scarce good.

Pilita Clark
It may be a seller’s market, but if the tech is too expensive, it will limit who makes use of it and whether it can scale up in time. Christoph doesn’t deny that, but he likens the cost of Climeworks carbon removal today to the cost of renewable energy in the 1990s. Back then, the tech for solar and wind power was expensive, but then it fell precipitously much faster than expected. And he thinks it will be the same for direct air capture.

Christoph Beuttler
You know, we will get the price down. That’s the law of technology. You know, as humans deploy technology, they get better at it. But the important thing is to keep at it.

Pilita Clark
There’s another big issue, though, with carbon removal tech. Some of its biggest cheerleaders are fossil fuel companies. In fact, oil and gas firms are investing in direct air capture projects. They see it as a way for the sector to cut carbon while continuing to extract more fossil fuels. And that might explain why so many environmental groups are worried that this technology will end up being another way the fossil fuel industry tries to prolong its life. So has Climeworks ever considered working with oil and gas firms? I put that question to Christoph.

Christoph Beuttler
Yes, we have considered it, but we have never done it. We don’t think that’s a good marketing strategy . . .

Pilita Clark
 . . . Kind of seems to defeat the purpose if the purpose is carbon removal.

Christoph Beuttler
Exactly. I mean, there is this narrative that we can pollute now and clean up later. The simple fact of the matter is we have to not decarbonise but defossilise. I mean, we will always need carbon for our products, but it mustn’t come from the ground anymore.

Pilita Clark
So here’s my take, direct air capture and storage technology is really promising. I can see that if one day we ever get our emissions under control, it could play a useful role mopping up the carbon already in the air. But that’s not our problem right now. Our problem today is we’re still pumping billions of tons of new CO₂ into the atmosphere every year, and it’s hard to see this technology making more than a dent. I couldn’t help but wonder if Christoph doesn’t sometimes wake up in the morning daunted by the sheer scale of what they’re trying to achieve.

Christoph Beuttler
I mean, sure, it’s a it’s a Herculean task, but let’s say it’s the, I don’t know, 1850s. And I’m proposing to you that I want to build a sewage system for the city of London. That must have felt on the same order of magnitude back then.

Pilita Clark
What about Kári Helgason at CarbFix back in Iceland? Does he ever think of it in the same way as Christoph, or does he ever well, despair?

Kári Helgason
It’s like, you know, whatever you do, it’s not enough, right? So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a burden. Yeah. But, you know, you have to approach it in a sort of a positive manner. And we’ve already been quite successful. We’ve stored more than 100,000 tonnes of gas. So the question is, you know, how much can we scale up?

Pilita Clark
That is the big question. But hey, I won’t knock the effort or the impressive technology they are developing. It’s better than the alternative, doing nothing at all. Still, I was left wondering if there aren’t other solutions out there, ones that could be deployed more quickly, because when it comes to climate change, we’re really running out of time. Sometimes I think maybe we need something almost biblical, some kind of divine intervention, like the ability to turn water into fuel. Turns out that’s not far off what some people are trying to do with hydrogen.

Andrew Forrest
You burn that pure hydrogen it goes back to what it came from, which is water. I think that’s the best spell which has ever come out of Hogwarts, but it’s in fact, pure science.

Pilita Clark
Coming up next time, is hydrogen the long-awaited miracle fuel? We speak to the man some are calling the king of green hydrogen. Join me then. You’ve been listening to Tech Tonic from the Financial Times with me, Pilita Clark. If you like what you’ve heard, leave us a review and don’t forget to subscribe. There’ll be four more episodes in this series of Tech Tonic, and they’ll be landing every Tuesday. I’ve also put links in the show notes to more climate tech reporting from my colleagues at the Financial Times. Credits go to our senior producer, Edwin Lane. Josh Gabert-Doyon is our producer, and our executive producer is Manuela Saragosa. Sam Giovinco was our sound designer and engineer for this episode. With original scoring by Metaphor Music. Cheryl Brumley is our global head of audio.

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