World’s first commercial-scale air scrubbing plant launched in Switzerland

The world’s first commercial plant to capture atmospheric CO₂, which simultaneously boosts air quality and captures the gas for resale, has been launched in Switzerland

The direct air capture (DAC) plant, located near Zurich, filters 900 tonnes of CO₂ annually from the atmosphere to supply to a local greenhouse, where it will be used to grow vegetables, replacing fossil industrial CO₂.

The first of its kind, the air-scrubbing technology used in the plant has been deemed crucial to the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rises to 2°C.

The plant, developed by Climeworks, makes use of patented technology to filter CO₂ from ambient air. The filter captures atmospheric carbon using mainly low-grade heat as an energy source, with this first DAC system installed on the roof of a waste recovery factory, where it can use the factory’s waste heat as power.

As the first commercial-scale air scrubber to begin operations, the plant could be the first example of a whole new approach to combating climate change.

“Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the two-degree target of the international community,” said Christoph Gebald, co-founder and managing director of Climeworks. “The DAC-technology provides distinct advantages to achieve this aim and is perfectly suitable to be combined with underground storage.

“We’re working hard to reach the goal of filtering one per cent of global CO₂ emissions by 2025. To achieve this, we estimate around 250,000 DAC-plants like the one in Hinwil are necessary.”

The capture process sees CO₂ chemically deposited on the surface of the filter which, once saturated, then isolates CO₂ at a temperature of about 100°C. The captured gas can then be sold onto markets such as the energy sector, commercial agriculture, the automotive industry and food and beverage industries.

At present, the important customer is the aforementioned greenhouse, with Climeworks providing a continuous supply of CO₂ to assist with growing vegetables. By securing this agreement, Climeworks have made their operation the first direct air capture plant with a commercial customer.

Operating as a three-year demonstration project in co-operation with the partners Gebrüder Meier (operators of the greenhouse) and KEZO (operators of the factory), it is hoped that this will serve as the first step to far broader commercialisation.

The newly installed air scrubber. Images courtesy of Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

With such a strong case for commercialisation, Climeworks has set its sights on expansion. Compared to other carbon capture technologies, the Climeworks DAC’s modular design can be employed almost anywhere.

The company is planning to use this initial success to launch additional pilot projects in other markets, and plans to test the technology’s potential in combination with underground storage.

“With the energy and economic data from the plant we can make reliable calculations for other, larger projects and draw on the practical experience we have gained,” said Jan Wurzbacher, Climeworks co-founder and managing director.

If the company continues to improve on its success, and expands its operational capability, it is possible that such technology could play a lead role in combating. In particular, with Climeworks’ easy deployment, we could soon see direct air capture broadly utilised, from factory to city.

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