In the battle to keep the climate from warming even more, storing carbon – known as carbon sequestration – will be crucial. Climeworks is capturing carbon from the air and storing it deep underground forever. And they’re doing it in a very cool way.

How do you remove carbon dioxide from the air?

Giant extractor fans. That’s right: Climeworks extractors suck in air, use a filter to trap carbon dioxide (CO2) and then store it. It’s called direct air capture. Founded by two engineers who decided they must do something about global warming’s impact on glaciers, in September 2021 Climeworks launched the world’s largest direct air capture plant in Iceland, trapping captured CO2 underground as stone.

The plant will store 4,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, equivalent to the emissions of 870 cars. Although its impact is modest, and it’s costly to run, the technology is at an early stage. The New York Times explores Climeworks’ challenges of reaching its ambitious target of removing 1% of the world’s annual CO₂ emissions. 

Climeworks work with companies that produce CO2 and sell CO2 removal subscriptions online to anyone. They’ve joined with renewable energy suppliers to make sure the energy running the process isn’t adding more CO2 to the environment.

In our short documentary, Climeworks co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Carlos Haertel, explains what drives their tech-led climate initiative.

Why we must trap carbon

Why capture carbon at all? If we eat plant-based foods and use renewable energies, won’t that be enough?

Scientists say probably not. Climeworks’ website says, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s climate forecasts make clear we must remove carbon dioxide from the air to keep global warming below 1.5°C.” 

Direct air capture, like planting trees, goes further than reducing emissions, removing CO2 produced in the past. So, projects like Climeworks are a much-needed addition to everything else we do to fight climate change.

How the carbon capture tech works

The extractor fans are powered with renewable or waste energy. They’re modular, so can be stacked to make machines of any size.

Fans draw in air and capture CO2 on a selective filter. Once the filter is full, the collector closes and uses temperatures of 80 to 100°C to release the CO2 in a highly concentrated form, ready for storage.

There are many ways to permanently store CO2, but Climeworks prefers to focus on natural carbon sinks, like underground mineralization. They also work with companies using this pure carbon dioxide to produce renewable, carbon-neutral fuels and materials.

Alongside well-understood environmental wins like planting trees, carbon capture technologies will be an important part of ensuring the climate stays friendly to life on earth. We might’ve imagined a future of forests, but who would’ve thought it might also involve giant extractor fans? Innovation always has a few surprises up its sleeve.

For more videos about technologies that will change the future, see Tomorrow Unlocked on YouTube.