A half-hour’s drive from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, one happens upon a scene straight out of a science fiction movie: Plumes of white steam billow above the Hellisheiði volcanic region. The air is suffused with the unmistakable stench of sulfur — several thermal springs, their mineral-rich waters a favorite of local bathers, are nearby. The rays of a waning sun are no match for the thick cloud cover that hangs over the rough terrain on a crisp early autumn day.
It is here that the future and the present collide in a structure about two stories high. This is the Orca Plant, the world’s largest facility for capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air and storing it deep underground. The steam we see is being released into the sky from geothermal drilling sites. The captured CO2 is mixed with water and injected into those holes in the ground.
The Orca Plant, built, owned, and operated by the Swiss company Climeworks, kicked into whirring, carbon-sucking life last month, fueled by geothermal energy from Iceland’s ON Power. While Orca is not the first of its kind in the world, its size and potential have sparked expectations for a revolution in CO2 capture and storage, as well as hope for our rapidly warming planet.
Set on just over 18,000 square feet of Mordor-like volcanic terrain, Orca’s eight CO2 collector containers frame the plant’s central processing facility and capture carbon dioxide through a two-step process. First, fans — which sound as if a giant flock of birds is passing overhead — draw air into the collectors. Next, carbon dioxide is captured by solid sorbents, a type of filter inside the collectors. Once the sorbents are saturated with CO2, the fans stop, the collectors close, and the temperature inside the chamber increases to between 176 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating releases the carbon dioxide, which is collected as pure, concentrated gas.
From there, Carbfix, a division of ON Power and an expert in rapid underground mineralization, mixes this captured carbon dioxide with water and pumps it deep into the earth beneath metallic geodesic domes that surround the plant. There, in the underground volcanic basalt rock, the greenhouse gas will be transformed by natural processes into mineralized rock that will stay underground permanently. The mineralization process can take up to two years.
The Orca Plant is an open-air lab, of sorts. Its CO2 capture capacity is modest, at 4,000 tons per year, an amount dwarfed by the 36 billion tons the earth’s humans released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in 2018. But Orca could also be a cause for great optimism, the beginning of the beginning of humankind’s bid to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. Climeworks’ co-founders, German engineers and entrepreneurs Jan Wurzbacher and Cristoph Gebald, say their goal is to equip as many countries as possible with their machines and use the basalt underground capacity that exists around the world for storage.
An abundance of geothermal energy helped fuel Iceland’s transformation away from total dependence on oil in the 1970s. An economic renaissance followed. Electricity production in Iceland ranks alongside tourism, fishing, and aluminum production as a top industry. Three-quarters of the country’s electric power comes from hydroelectric plants, and the rest comes from geothermal plants. Icelandic households are nearly all heated by warm underground water.
If prosperity and freedom from fossil fuel dependency made Iceland especially well poised to take on climate change, the sight of the nation’s rapidly melting glaciers added urgency to the quest. There is widespread popular support for green projects, and Iceland has established itself as a global hub for problem-solving the climate crisis.
For the last five years, photographer Matjaž Krivic and I have been chronicling this transformation in Iceland, as well as efforts being made in countries all over the world, for our latest book, “Plan B: How Not to Lose Hope in the Times of Climate Crisis.” In the photo essay that follows, we take you inside the Orca Plant. With COP26, the UN’s annual climate change conference, set to begin on Oct. 31, we find ourselves embracing a state of mind that has, until now, eluded us: hope for the future of our planet.
In 2014, the Okjökull glacier became Iceland’s first to lose its glacier status. The ice mass has further contracted over subsequent years, leaving the peak of the Ok volcano bare, inspiring Icelandic filmmakers to produce a documentary, “Not Ok.” Scientists and leading intellectuals commissioned a tombstone for the rapidly shrinking mass. Andri Snær Magnason, a prominent progressive voice in Iceland and a bestselling author, wrote the inscription, which reads, in part:
“In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path [as Ok]. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The inscription closes with a climate change timestamp, of sorts: “August 2019, 415 ppm CO2″ — the level of carbon dioxide saturation in the air at the time of the stone’s unveiling.
The inspiration for Climeworks goes back almost two decades, when Gebald and Wurzbacher met at ETH Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in 2003. Passionate skiers, they saw the Swiss glaciers they loved to ski begin to shrink and devoted themselves to tackling climate change. They founded Climeworks in 2009.
Following the Marrakesh Climate Change Conference in 2016, Gebald and Wurzbacher forged a partnership with Carbfix and built their first carbon capture facility in 2017 in Hinwill, about 20 miles outside Zürich. Since then, Gebald and Wurzbacher have kept refining and improving their CO2-trapping technology. “We were focused on building something and then increasing it first by a thousandfold and then by a millionfold,” Wurzbacher says. “Our storage turbines are the culmination of that dream.”
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and several other organizations, the direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air could play a crucial role — alongside emissions reductions, reforestation, and other measures — in keeping the earth’s average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from the preindustrial level, and thus saving the earth from utter catastrophe. Unfortunately, the cost of carbon capture technology, according to a 2020 study in Nature Communications, is prohibitive. An anticipated boom in the industry over the next five years, however, is projected to lower the cost from $600 per ton of CO2 removed from the air to less than $100 per ton. Both the European Green Deal and President Biden’s climate goals for 2030 include plans to subsidize carbon capture facilities. Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill provides billions of dollars to develop direct-air-capture plants in the United States.
Captured CO2 is mixed with water and pumped below ground under geodesic domes like the ones pictured. After several months, the trapped CO2 hardens into mineralized rock, as shown below.
In addition to having the economic power to fund bold climate initiatives and the green energy to operate them, Iceland has another asset: widespread popular resolve to effect change. Over the past two decades, the nation’s education system built climate awareness into its curriculum, and it is producing the next generations of engineers, scientists, and activists who will make the climate crisis their focus. Iceland is also preparing the way for the rise of carbon capture and storage technology. “An explosion is coming,” Carbfix’s executive director, Edda Sif Pind Aradóttir, says. “The technology is here. Now we need to effect a massive increase in our capacities.”
What’s next? Carbfix has its sights set on an ambitious project named Coda Terminal. Beginning in 2025, a specialized port in the southeast of Iceland, near Keflavik International Airport, will become the destination for Northern European ships to deliver their countries’ captured CO2. The starting capacity is projected to be 300,000 tons of CO2 per year. A gradual increase is also projected, and the company hopes to be storing three million tons of captured carbon from all over Europe by 2030.
Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning journalist, war correspondent, and playwright, and the author of six books. Matjaž Krivic is an award-winning documentary photographer. For the past two decades, he has traveled the world capturing stories about social and environmental change.