The World's First Carbon Capture Plant, Hmm...
20th June 2017A few weeks ago the world’s first commercial carbon dioxide capturing system opened at a waste treatment plant in Switzerland. The system sucks ambient air through filters which remove the CO2, before redistributing the gas along pipes to be used in nearby agricultural greenhouses. When saturated, in order to expel the gas from the filters, heat produced by the waste incineration process is used to heat the filters to approximately 100°c.
The world's first carbon capture plant.The aim of the system is to reduce the emissions footprint of the company which own the greenhouses by eradicating the need for lorry transport of carbon dioxide to their farm. The system’s location was selected directly to benefit the farm, and it is likely similar conditions exist in multiple other international locations where this type of technology would be beneficial. However, whether this type of system is appropriate is another question. The project has been met with considerable scepticism since its opening, with some believing it is too insignificant a drop in the ocean of climate change, and others deeming it a viable option for CO2 removal to explore in the coming decades. In this article I plan to unpack the reasoning behind both points of view to decide if this type of plant really is a useful tool for the future.
How the plant works. Image by ClimeworksThe first issue to discuss is how much CO2 is removed from the ambient air by the system. To really examine this, we need to make some assumptions about the inputs and outputs. Firstly, I will assume that all the collected CO2 is used within the greenhouses and captured within the growing food, so none is lost back into the ambient air. Also, I am assuming that all the heat from the waste incineration would be otherwise wasted if it wasn’t used to desorb the CO2 from the filters. With those assumptions in place, the net annual reduction in CO2 is 900 tonnes, plus the emissions that would be released by the transport lorry. The reduction caused by eradication of transport is negligible in this case considering the huge number of vehicles on our roads, so I will use 900 tonnes as the guiding figure. Sadly, this is a minuscule reduction in the grand scheme of global emissions, and even Switzerland’s emissions of approximately 40,000,000 tonnes per annum. The reduction represents 0.00225% of the nation’s CO2 emissions, meaning unless the technology improves in capability it will likely not be viable.
Despite the bleak outlook suggested by the figures above, I am not yet willing to write off the technology. There are a number of potential techniques to improve the system, which could ensure it is more effective in the future. Firstly, since this is only a relatively small scale project, upscaling could improve efficiency and develop the system. Furthermore, increasing awareness of the technology through the creation of more plants may attract more innovation and new breakthroughs in the area. A similar sequence to solar power may follow, with exponential improvements increasing viability and effectiveness. Solar efficiency has already increased from 6% in 1954 to almost 30% in commercial panels and 46% in lab tests using advanced materials. Also, learning from this first plant may inspire other new technologies to develop that are based on the primary system architecture.
The unit is only suitable in specific locations.Another potential problem with expansion of the system is the specific set of conditions that must occur for it to be effective. The plant must produce waste heat, or heat through zero-carbon means, and be near to an industry that demands CO2 and uses it for purposes that do not release any emissions into the atmosphere. Two examples of such industries are greenhouse agriculture, as seen in the case study, and drink carbonation. Of course, greenhouse agriculture is a huge industry, however there must be a large amount of foresight and long-term planning to incorporate a carbon capture plant into a facility, and many businesses would not be willing to invest in such an untested and low return system.
I believe the mixed response to this scheme has been caused by a pair of separate yet both equally valid perspectives. Taken in isolation, the scheme is positive. It is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is desperately needed in our current position. If an observer is under the impression that any and all reductions are important, they will think positively of the project. However, on the other hand, the opposing response is sceptical of the long-term potential of the technology. One may argue that the company should have installed a tried and tested system to maximise CO2 reductions due to the severity of climate change. This group are pessimistic regarding the potential of the technology to improve or spawn new ideas. A third alternative view exists also, the optimistic long-term thinker, who accepts the poor impact of the current system, however believes in the concept and would like to see it developed. All three opinions are sensible and considered, so it is hard to predict which will prevail in forming the future of carbon capture plants. However, whatever your response, keep an eye on this technology, it seems poised to have an interesting future…
For more information visit the carbon capture system website.