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Technology

Surprise! Climeworks Unveils Newer, Faster, Cheaper Tech

Twice the carbon capture with half the energy.

A Climeworks rendering.
Heatmap Illustration/Climeworks

Direct air capture is leveling up. In a surprise move on Tuesday, Climeworks unveiled new “generation 3” technology that it said can suck up twice as much carbon from the atmosphere using half the amount of energy as its previous designs.

The Swiss carbon removal company will premiere the new design in the U.S. at its Department of Energy-funded direct air capture “hub” in Louisiana, with construction to start in 2026.

Climeworks already operates the two largest direct air capture plants in the world, both in Iceland. Its first commercial-scale plant, Orca, was designed to capture 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. Just last month, the company turned on its second plant, Mammoth, which at full capacity is supposed to capture 36,000 tons per year. Now, Climeworks’ third generation breakthrough paves the way for it to build a plant capable of capturing one million tons per year, the company said — a nearly 28x increase.

Over the past five years, while Climeworks was building Orca and Mammoth, it had also been stealthily developing the next generation tech at its labs in Zurich and Basel with a 50-person team. Like the earlier designs, the new system uses a specially engineered material called a solid sorbent that attracts carbon dioxide molecules when air passes through it. But the company has overhauled both the chemistry of the sorbent and its structure. The new design has more surface area, enabling it to grab twice as much CO2 from the air. The company also said it expects the new sorbents to last three times as long as the previous material.

In addition to a new sorbent, the gen 3 tech will also feature an updated architecture described as “sleek modular cubes” that “increase capture efficiency, reduce costs, and boost robustness.” The new cubes will make the plants more compact, taking up half the footprint of an older plant with similar capacity. Renderings feature seemingly taller, boxier facilities compared to the earlier, more horizontally-oriented design.

A rendering of Climeworks\u2019 Gen 3 plant.Courtesy of Climeworks

Climeworks has already tested a full-scale model of its new cubes and says it has “confirmed the anticipated breakthrough in efficiency and performance.” It’s hard to know what that means, since the company has never shared its previous tech’s efficiency or performance. But halving its energy use would be a big deal, as that’s one of the most expensive parts of the process. Carbon is extremely dilute in the air, and these machines consume massive amounts of electricity and heat to extract it.

The company said the breakthrough puts it on track to achieve the cost reductions it has previously promised, with a goal of removing CO2 for $400 to $600 per ton by 2030. (The price range accounts for potential variations in the cost of electricity and CO2 storage in different locations.) That’s about half the amount Climeworks charges today, but it’s still expensive. Some carbon removal companies, like Lithos Carbon, which does enhanced rock weathering, and Vaulted Deep, which buries carbon-rich waste, have already sold credits for less than $400, so Climeworks already faces steep competition to bring its costs down.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect clarification from Climeworks on its 2030 price estimate per ton of carbon.

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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