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Building the Factory in the Sky

by Peter Schiavelli

On November 19th, a sixty-one-year-old British explorer named Sir Robert Swan set out to complete, for the second time, a six hundred mile expedition on foot to the South Pole.

Swan on his maiden trip to the South Pole, 1984, Antartica

The journey would take almost two months, and the conditions were some of the most inhospitable on earth, with snowstorms, little atmospheric UV protection, and temperatures dropping as low as negative-forty-degrees Celsius even though the Antarctic winter had not yet begun. Swan, his eyes scorched capri-blue and his cheeks permanently blushed from the sun exposure on his first trip to the Pole thirty years ago, prepared for the trek by hauling weights and tires up and down hills from Los Angeles to London and biking two hundred miles a week through the Sierra Mountains.

He and his team would traverse much of the glacial terrain on skis, dragging their belongings—tents and heaters, ice picks and navigation equipment, as well as small, unmarked canisters of protective face cream—on two-hundred pound sleds with twin solar panels propped on top of them like little chrome gable roofs.

The Swans hauling mobile solar panels to service NASA-designed ice-melters and stoves

A portable Antarctic kitchen

The expedition was called SPEC, the South Pole Energy Challenge, and it was devised by Swan and his organization, the 2041 Foundation, as a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of renewable energy technologies, to publicize the impact of global warming on the Antarctic landscape, possibly to provide a metaphor for humanity’s struggle against climate change, and, presumably, to give him some quality time with his twenty-three-year-old son, Barney, who accompanied him. (Although the elder Swan would not complete the trek this time—he turned back early but rejoined his team for the last sixty kilometers to the Pole—his son took up the mantle and did.)

Everything they used that required energy—from the NASA-designed ice-melters to the stoves that cooked their bacon the last morning of the expedition—was powered entirely by Shell-developed biofuels and solar power, meaning that all of their energy sources were completely renewable. (The implication being that if they can survive Antarctica without a carbon footprint, you and I can probably survive the San Fernando Valley.)

Swan was particularly thorough. Although the trek itself only used renewables, transportation to and from the continent did not. (Antarctic cargo planes are not yet available in electric models.) So he calculated his total emitted carbon dioxide—in this case two hundred and thirty-eight tons—and, doing what would have very recently seemed impossible, simply paid to have it removed from the atmosphere. He accounted for most of the two hundred and thirty-eight tons with investments in reforestation and preservation (trees are very good at storing CO2), but twenty tons of it, in an atmospheric magic act, were whisked out of the air by a Swiss company called Climeworks.

The magic act is Direct-Air Capture (DAC), and it is essentially the process of sucking CO2 out of the air and removing it from the atmosphere. Climeworks is the brainchild of Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, a pair of German-born, Swiss-educated wunderkinds, and it represents what might prove to be a key part of humanity’s efforts to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Robert and Barney Swan Raising the Climeworks Flag: South Pole, Antartica, 2018

Cristophe Gebald in Iceland, 2018

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Gebald, when asked about the genesis of Climeworks, began with a line more apt to open a fairytale than a business partnership. “It sounds too romantic to be true.” His voice is soft, measured, slightly airy. We were sitting in a conference room at the top of Helena’s high-rise Downtown Los Angeles office space.

Gebald and Wurzbacher, both just thirty-four, had arrived from Switzerland not three hours before. They had yet to check in to their hotel—their luggage and overcoats occupied the far corner—but their slim-cut suits didn’t bear so much as a wrinkle from their transatlantic flight. The two men are taller, leaner, and look younger than they do in pictures (though Wurzbacher is combating this with what is either heavy stubble or a thin beard), with high cheekbones and crisply-folded pocket squares. Both are thoughtful but quick to smile, and, even jet-lagged, they are spectacularly polite.

As the tale goes, fourteen years ago, Gebald and Wurzbacher, both twenty years old, alone, and in a new country, met each other for the first time on their first day at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich, one of the top engineering universities in the world (and the alma mater of another German scientist, Albert Einstein). The conversation spanned somewhere between ten minutes and two hours, and, by the end of it, they had agreed to be business partners. A love story as written by Steve Jobs. In true millennial fashion, they consummated this arrangement with a high-five.

Components of a Climeworks Direct Air Carbon Capture Plant (1 of 2)

Components of a Climeworks Direct Air Carbon Capture Plant (2 of 2)

Climeworks, along with Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat, is now one of just three DAC companies in the world, and currently employs the largest team of experts in the field. Although all three use different technologies, the main idea is the same: take ambient air and suck the CO2 out of it.

To accomplish this, a Climeworks plant (made up by what the company calls “CO2”), uses suction fans to pull air through a filter, which chemically “catches” the CO2 in the air passing through. The CO2 sticks to the filter, while the remaining, CO2-free air is let back out into the atmosphere. The filter, laden with CO2, is then heated in order to release the carbon dioxide as a concentrated gas. Once released, the pure CO2 gas is collected and subsequently sold or stored, and the filter, now clean, is ready to be used again. The same filter can be used many thousands of times.

Gebald and Wurzbacher’s first “plant” was constructed in 2008 and was the size of a drinking glass. It captured a few milliliters of CO2, and they used it when they were starting their Masters programs to persuade their advisors at ETH Zurich that the technology worked. (Their advisors were impressed enough that they persuaded Gebald and Wurzbacher to stay on for their Doctorates in order to continue their research and accrue funding before starting their company.)

Nine years later, in Hinwil, Switzerland, just outside Zurich, they introduced the world’s first commercial-scale DAC plant.

An arial view of Climeworks' plant -- the world's first commercial carbon-capture factory. Hinwil, Switzerland, 2017.

The plant captures almost a thousand tons of CO2 annually and takes up little land—less than one thousand square feet—because in shape it is more a scoreboard than a factory, a panel with three stacked rows of six gigantic fans (sitting neatly inside shipping containers) that in appearance could be mistaken for the jet engines of a particularly ambitious space shuttle. One could also make the case that the plant takes up no land, since it is situated not on the ground, but on the roof of a large waste-utilization center.

The location was chosen not just to save on Swiss real estate. Instead of being forced to independently generate the heat required to release the CO2 gas from the filters (a CO2-generating process that would be counterproductive and inefficient), the Climeworks plant uses the heat already emanating from the waste facility’s incinerators. The whole complex also happens to be less than four hundred meters from a large greenhouse.

To complete the cradle-to-cradle cycle, the greenhouse buys the CO2 collected by Climeworks and uses it as an airborne fertilizer. Today, Gebald and Wurzbacher have six plants in circulation, with another eight in either the planning or construction phase and soon to be dispatched. This is ten times the output of either of their main competitors, despite the fact that they have only received about half the funding. “We have this modular approach,” Wurzbacher explains. He speaks faster than Gebald, and his voice is deeper. “So we can start at a small scale.

That enabled us to become part of several individual projects.” Among those projects is a partnership with Audi to help make “e-fuels”: an automotive fuel, produced with Climeworks-captured CO2 and water, that has no carbon footprint. Climeworks CO2 has been used in soils, soft drinks, and meat-packing.

At the beginning, their modular approach was necessary because they needed to be able to build small-scale plants at non-prohibitive costs. In the future, their approach may be necessary in order for us to squeeze in all of the CO2-sucking fans that we can.

 

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The Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator

“At the end of the day, there’s no magic to it.”

It was an evening in the middle of December, and I was sitting in the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, talking with Dr. Julio Friedmann.

Dr. Friedmann is a senior fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy, at the Department of Energy. He has worked privately for Exxon Mobil and academically at the University of Maryland, and he is known online by the Twitter handle @CarbonWrangler. (He defines “carbon wrangling” in his Twitter biography as: “1) prevent CO2 sources from entering the atmosphere; 2) Close the carbon cycle; 3) pull CO2 from the air & oceans and return it to earth.”)

He is also the self-appointed sheriff of the place he calls “Carbonville,” where payments are made and ledgers are kept not in dollars, but in tons of CO2. (We are all residents of Carbonville, because we all affect the global carbon footprint.) He is a carbon expert, and he is known in the climate community as both a clear-thinker and a straight-shooter. He also recently took on an advisory position with Climeworks. When I saw him, he was in a suit jacket and open-collared Oxford shirt that was the right level of rumpled to suggest that he prefers his sleeves rolled up; he would have been just as comfortable in a hard hat.

Friedmann gesturing during a Helena meeting, while Cristophe Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher look on.

Matt Peterson, CEO of the Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator.

Helena CEO Henry Elkus announcing the organization's intentions to engage in Carbon-Capture technologies at the Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator.

When I arrived, Friedmann was meeting with Matt Peterson, the CEO of LACI, so I wandered around. The LACI, one of the top incubators in the world for cleantech startups, is headquartered at the La Kretz Innovation Campus, which opened in October in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles. The Campus, now home to thirty-three different companies, is an Ikea showroom floor of offices, conference rooms, and laboratories, all ensconced in the industrial chic of exposed wooden I-beams and steel ventilation ducts.

The day I was there, a woman was presenting in the open-floorplanned auditorium on handling typical marketing struggles, and reading materials in the reception area and break room included a buyer’s guide to wind turbines and a book on working out with kettlebells. A small group of employees in holiday sweaters were arranging themselves into a human “Christmas tree” (a “pyramid” were it an evening in June instead of December) for a picture, which I took.

The crown jewel of La Kretz’s decoration—and the backdrop for the picture—is its “living wall,” a kind of crosshatched, swirling tapestry of actively growing leaves and plants that surrounds the reception area. (It connects through the ceiling to the roof, where the plants receive sunlight.) It reminded me of a child’s sand art if her palette were limited to Earth tones.

Dr. Friedmann and I were supposed to talk outside in the garden, but it was getting late and the Santa Ana winds were gusting (fires in Ventura and Bel Air would erupt not long after), so we sequestered an empty conference room instead.

“It’s just a numbers game,” Friedmann continued.

We were talking about what Friedmann refers to as “climate math.” He set down the basics of climate math in a recent post for the Center for Carbon Removal: “since we know about how much CO2 warms the atmosphere, and we know how much warming has already happened, we know how much more CO2 we can emit before we blow past the Paris Climate Accord targets – 1.5℃ and 2℃ of warming.” Essentially: this is how much CO2 the atmosphere can take (our “carbon budget”), this is how much we’ve already emitted, and, therefore, this is how much more CO2 we can emit. Climate math is arithmetic, not algebra; there are no unknowns.

Heads of State after signing 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Paris, France.

Figuring out those numbers, though, took some effort. The Paris Climate Accord Friedmann refers to was negotiated in 2015 at COP21 (the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and set the theoretical global warming limit. The signing nations—a hundred ninety-five of them, including the United States, though the current administration has since indicated its intentions to leave—pledged to do what is necessary to keep the increase in global temperature this century “well below” two degrees over pre-industrial levels, with an ideal goal of under one-and-a-half degrees. (That was as ambitious as they dared get since we have already crossed the one-degree threshold, and in September 2018 are set to blow the one-and-a-half degree budget too.) Not coincidentally, this Accord came on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, released the year before.

 The I.P.C.C.’s report was over a thousand pages long, had thousands of contributing scientists, and took seven years to construct. One of its main contributions was that it quantified our carbon budget: In order to keep global warming under two degrees, the carbon budget is one trillion tons.

An IPCC panel announcing findings.

It concluded, too, that five hundred and fifteen billion tons (fifty-two percent) were already spoken for. At our current rate of emissions, according to the report, we will blow the rest of our two-degree carbon budget in less than thirty years.

If this were not alarming enough, the I.P.C.C. then went a step further: armed with its numbers, it attempted to map our climate trajectories. It used emissions projections, policy possibilities, and trends in technological advancement to model the potential 21st century climate landscapes—called “scenarios”—in order to see how likely it is that we are able to reduce our emissions enough to stay within our carbon budget over the next eighty years. The odds projected to be daunting. The I.P.C.C. constructed and analyzed over a thousand scenarios, and in only fifteen of those thousand were we able to successfully stay within our budget solely by reducing our global emissions.

In addition to carbon-capture technologies, others NETs (negative emissions technologies) include reforestation and biochar.

And in zero were we able to hold it under one-and-a-half degrees.

(Frighteningly, the I.P.C.C. found it more likely that we would cause the temperature to increase over four degrees than that we would be able to hold it under two. For reference, a four-degree-warming scenario yields a world with agricultural crop devastation, ecosystem collapse, and mass extinctions.) Scaling back our CO2 emissions on the level Paris would require looked to be practically impossible.

Bringing negative emissions technologies into the equation, however, changed the math. With NETs (like direct-air capture) employed on some (generally large) degree, the rate at which we could scale back emissions and still come in under budget became more reasonable: the I.P.C.C. saw the number of successful under-two-degree scenarios jump from fifteen to one hundred and sixteen, a seven-fold increase. (These also included “overshoot” scenarios, when we temporarily surpass the trillion-ton carbon budget threshold but then use NETs to pull enough CO2 out of the air to return us to the black, like what Swan did with his two hundred and thirty-eight tons.) And, with NETs, the grander goal—the one-and-a-half degree goal—actually became mathematically possible.

The math, it seems, is clear: If we want to stick to the carbon budget, NETs are a necessary piece of the equation.

 

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Nearly half of the world's manmade carbon dioxide is trapped in the oceans.

The question, then, becomes: why don’t we just take it all out and not worry about emissions at all?

There are a few reasons—cost, energy required, policy—but what lies underneath (or, I suppose, above) them is simply how much CO2 there is. The volumes are massive. The world emits around thirty-five billion tons of CO2 every year, with few signs of slowing down. (Emissions in 2017 were the highest on record, a statistic made particularly dispiriting by coming after a three-year plateau.)

And, even if we were to capture enough atmospheric CO2, where would we put it? There is only so much CO2 that greenhouses and soda companies need, so much sunscreen and renewable fuels that can be made, and – although these markets are huge and in the billion-ton range – they are not huge enough, and not in the hundreds of billions of tons range.

In October, less than a year after opening their carbon capture plant in Hinwil, Gebald and Wurzbacher launched another first: the world’s first DAC carbon removal plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland. (Because their Hinwil plant doesn’t permanently remove CO2 from the carbon cycle – but rather recycles it – it is considered a carbon capture plant but not a negative emissions plant, though it has a positive effect on the atmosphere by sending the CO2 it captures to the plants in the greenhouse, thereby repurposing it and closing the carbon cycle.)

 

Instead of perching on the roof of a waste-incineration plant, the Iceland DAC plant squats on the grounds of a geothermal power plant, so small and nondescript that it could be mistaken for a tool shed. It consists of just one CO2 collector and captures just fifty tons of CO2 annually (roughly five percent of the CO2 that the Hinwil plant does and enough to offset around ten cars); by itself it has a negligible effect on the atmosphere.

The plant by air. Hellisheiði, Iceland. (Drone image)

Piping to and from the Climeworks Iceland palnt. (Drone image).

What makes it special—the first of its kind—is that the captured CO2 is not sold to another company in order to be reused or temporarily stored; it is injected 700m down into the ground, where it reacts with basaltic rock and mineralizes. (The long-term storage of captured CO2—in this case in basalt, but it doesn’t have to be—is called sequestering.) The CO2, once mineralized, becomes stuck in the rock, stable and unable to reenter the earth’s atmosphere for millions of years. An emissions fossil.

Greenhouses, soda companies, and fuel manufacturers have a finite amount of CO2 that they can use. The earth’s mantle, for all intents and purposes, does not. “Sequestering will be the biggest business case,” Gebald told me. “Followed by fuel. And the greenhouses and drinks will be minor in the future.”

The “future” Gebald refers to, one in which DAC is implemented on a scale that eclipses commercial demand and requires sequestration, needs to happen soon. According to the I.P.C.C.’s scenarios, to give ourselves even a fighting chance of ending the century with less than one trillion tons of CO2 in the air, carbon removal has to offset emissions before the mid-century mark, and probably has to surpass it.

Gebald and Wurzbacher are aware of the timeline. In the next ten years, Climeworks has a goal of annually offsetting one percent of global emissions, which would require them to capture and sequester somewhere between two hundred twenty-five and three hundred fifty million tons of CO2 per year.

The Shell Deer Park manufacturing center in Texas, spanning 2,300 acres and 1,500 employees.

A shell-plant in Arkansas

To put the magnitude of that number into perspective, it’s roughly equal to the volume of oil Royal Dutch Shell moves over the same time span.

Six years ago, this claim would have seemed ludicrous. Until recently, direct air capture was dismissed by many climate scientists as being too expensive to be useful. In 2011, the American Physical Society asserted that capturing one ton of CO2 using DAC would at its most advanced stage cost, at the absolute minimum, $600. A study conducted by scientists at M.I.T., Stanford, and UC-Berkeley put the cost closer to $1000. Both of these numbers were designed to be market floors—they assumed large, industrial plants with fully realized economies of scale—with no technological way to go cheaper. DAC appeared to be entirely cost-prohibitive.

Then Gebald and Wurzbacher—without industrialization, without economies of scale, in one of the most expensive countries in the world, with an operating budget less than half the size of their competitors’—did it for less. And they have the technology to go much lower.

“We have a very beautiful cost-development curve, an eight-generation model to reduce our costs and develop our technology,” Wurzbacher said. Simply by industrializing and optimizing the production processes they already use, Gebald and Wurzbacher estimate they can lower the cost of direct-air carbon capture by a factor of three or more, putting it somewhere between one hundred and two hundred dollars per ton.

Friedmann put it succinctly: “They have a clean line of sight in their cost reductions that requires no miracles.” Then he turned slightly poetic. “It has gone from science fiction to science.”

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Elon Musk

Perhaps no one straddles the line between science fiction and science better—or more consciously—than Elon Musk. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO created the highest-valued United States auto manufacturer entirely from emissions-free vehicles, designed and open-sourced a way to travel the length of California in thirty-five minutes, and recently launched a cherry red Roadster nearly into the asteroid belt. Yet, for all of his radical (skeptics would call them “theatrical”) accomplishments, he has an aim that is remarkably simple. In Neil Strauss’s excellent Rolling Stone article “Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow,” Musk distilled what drives him to: “I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.”

Twenty-first century engineer-slash-entrepreneur geniuses apparently think alike. When I asked Gebald a similar question, his response echoed Musk’s. “We are intrinsically driven by entrepreneurship,” he said. “Followed by purpose: doing something which makes sense.”

The E-Science Lab, ETH Zürich.

At the time of their conversation that first day at ETH Zurich, Gebald and Wurzbacher knew they wanted to start a company, but neither knew what kind of company they wanted to start. So they began exploring. “We designed our studies in a way that they were as disruptive as possible and as innovative as possible,” Gebald told me, “so they could potentially yield a start-up company.”

Gradually, their focus narrowed, and they honed in on carbon capture once they started their masters programs. “I think we discovered that as the most impactful in the field of engineering,” Wurzbacher said.

Despite the fact that Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat, the other two main direct-air capture companies in the world, are both buoyed by billionaire investors (Bill Gates and Edgar Bronfman Jr., respectively) and have accrued twice the funding of Climeworks, Gebald and Wurzbacher have managed to be at the forefront of almost every major milestone in the industry.

 

Gebald and Wurzbacher in front of a climeworks plant.

They were the first to market—first to launch a commercial-scale direct-air capture plant and first to build a direct-air capture NET—and the first to demonstrate that direct air carbon removal could be an economically viable technology. They were the first to break the six-hundred-dollar per ton of CO2-removed barrier, and the first to show how to go three times lower.

Their battery of engineers numbers almost fifty (approximately the number Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat have combined) and they have already deployed six plants on some scale. And they are still just thirty-four years old. When I asked how they managed all of this, they attributed it to their upbringings.

Wurzbacher and Gebald speaking at the Helena Prize awarding in Los Angeles, California.

Both come from middle-class German families, with fathers and in Wurzbacher’s case a mother who—“like sixty percent of all German parents” joked Wurzbacher—were engineers. Entrepreneurship, too, runs in their blood—Wurzbacher characterized his half-brother, who runs a bevy of businesses in the Dominican Republic, as “a serial entrepreneur,” and Gebald said that his engineer father was practically the only non-entrepreneur in his family. And they both showed a proclivity for it at a young age, starting on a small scale with things like self-funding projects in high school. (Here was one point of personality-revealing dissimilarity: Wurzbacher funded his projects by arranging parties; Gebald by organizing outdoor expeditions.) As you speak with them, yhou realize that while their meeting that first day at ETH  Zurich was serendipitous, their connection was practically inevitable.

“Our moms and dads needed to work to earn their livings,” said Gebald. “It’s something you experience as a kid, and it’s somehow burned into your DNA. You need to be disciplined. You need to work in order to get stuff done and earn your living. I think it’s good for us in the situation we’re in now.”

Wurzbacher added, “What both of us value is that, since we started with little—we never personally lived in overflow, in wealth, in excess— we learned to value little things. And I think that’s what we kept.” (The use of “our” and “us” and “we” is very typical of Gebald and Wurzbacher, even when they’re talking about experiences from childhood, events pre-high-five-in-Zurich. Their upbringings were so similar, and they are both so polite and reserved when it comes to their personal lives, that you wonder at times if they hadn’t become so close over the past fourteen years that they’d simply decided to adopt a shared backstory.)

“Jan and Christoph have kind of a hard-bore work ethic about this stuff.” Friedmann told me. “They did the slow boring of hard boards around commercial engineering. Many cleantech companies break their spears on that—they know how to invent something, but they don’t know how to actually build a company. The discipline Jan and Christoph have shown is very impressive. They are in the pole position.”

Pole position of an industry that, while still relatively nascent, is indisputably global in scope. “Energy and carbon,” Wurzbacher reminded me, “is a worldwide issue to solve.”

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Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) typically converts biomass into a range of fuels including ethanol.

Direct air capture is by no means the only NET at our disposal, and even with a three-fold price reduction, it is still not immediately price-competitive with more organic, land-dependent technologies like forestation and Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Planting trees is never a bad idea—they’re simple, they’re pretty, they store CO2, and they barely cost anything. (Sadly, they can also be cut down.)

BECCS is kind of a hybrid of forestation and Climeworks: in BECCS, production facilities are powered by biofuel, which is created by planting vast fields and burning the produce; their CO2 emissions they capture directly from their flues and sequester underground. (In flue gas, the CO2 is at higher concentrations, making it easier and cheaper to catch.) Since the facilities are powered by renewables (the biofuel), and since they sequester their emissions, they are operating net-negative, and at an operating cost less than Climeworks’. Of the little press that NETs have received, the lion’s share has gone to these methods, which is understandable: saving the environment with trees is a more romantic narrative than saving it with industrial suction fan-powered CO2 collectors.

But, again, the volume. To remove the quantity of CO2 that Paris calls for using land-dependent NETs would require seeding an area larger than India, somewhere between a quarter and three-fifths of the arable land on Earth plus vast amounts of water. That is clearly not feasible, which means that even with heavy forestation and BECCS use, there would still be billions of tons of excess CO2 left sitting in the atmosphere that would need to be vacuumed up.

The world's largest current reforestation project is being undertaken by NGO Conservation International in the Brazilian Amazon. The project seeks to restore 73 million trees across 70,000 acres by 2023.

(And that’s assuming we are even capable of forestation at all. Gebald summarized the issue like this: “The challenge is that we, as humans, have failed at stopping deforestation. The only data point we have is that, as of 2017, humans have not been able to stop deforestation in times of climate change. So if now we bet everything in our fight against climate change on an experiment at which we already failed, that sounds a little imprudent. We as humans have shown that we are good at building machines, but we’re not good at stopping deforestation.”)

When I brought up these other technologies with Gebald and Wurzbacher, Gebald handled the question first. “We do not say ‘don’t plant trees’; it’s the lowest cost solution. But you have to diversify your portfolio.” I noticed Wurzbacher was eyeing my notepad. Gebald continued. “Even if it is just to develop an additional solution, a safe solution, which might save us from ourselves.” When Gebald paused, Wurzbacher asked if he could borrow the pad. He turned to a blank page and drew on it a rough sketch of what looked like a classic graph of intersecting supply and demand curves, a big “X.”

“This is planting trees,” he said, pointing at the upward sloping curve—what I had thought was supply. Then he pointed at the downward sloping curve. “And this is direct air capture with machines.” He handed the notepad back to me. “If you want to invest in something, which one would you invest in?” I realized that they were the two cost structures. After trying to decide if I would offend him by not unequivocally answering “Climeworks,” I said that it would depend on where on the graph I was looking.

He nodded. I breathed a sigh of relief. “You should invest in both. Right now you should invest in this”— he pointed at the BECCS / forestation curve—“it is much less, so you should plant trees.” Then he indicated the direct air capture curve. “But if you forget to also invest here at low volumes, you’re going to miss this point.” He was pointing at the intersection of the two lines; the point after which direct air capture would be the more cost-effective way to remove CO2.

Although forestation and BECCs might be cheaper at first, as their deployment expands, they would be competing for land with global food producers. The cost of that land—and, by extension, the cost of the carbon-removal technology that would need that land—would skyrocket. Direct air capture, on the other hand, would theoretically follow the model of other technological innovations: expensive at first, but incrementally cheaper with time, investment, scale, and further advancement.

“I believe they are able to drop the cost at the kind of rate that we’ve seen in batteries, in solar, in wind.” Friedmann told me. “These other technologies have also benefitted from innovations that were inconceivable when they started. I think of these guys very much like lithium-ion batteries in the ’70’s, where the only initial application space was the video camcorder.”

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A factory in the sky: Climeworks carbon capture machinery.

The drive-train of a Tesla Model S sedan, powered by lithium-ion batteres. Since their inception in the 1970's, these batteries have vastly ascended to geopolitical importance.

A British chemist named M. Stanley Whittingham first conceived of the lithium-ion battery in the 1970’s, when much of the world was in the grip of the energy crisis and scientists were searching for ways to extricate us from our oil-dependence. (Historical parallels abound.) Research continued, and Exxon, having hired Whittingham, filed for a patent in 1976; the problem was the batteries had a vexing penchant for exploding when overcharged.

John Bannister Goodeneh with the lithium-ion battery cell

Then, in 1980, John Bannister Goodeneh, an American physicist at Oxford University, invented the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, the basis for a rechargeable lithium-based battery cell that didn’t sporadically detonate. Little was heard about them for the next eleven years, until Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991 to be used with a new range of handheld video cameras.

Competitors quickly flooded the market. The technology developed, the batteries became cheaper and more efficient, new markets were created. Today, forms of the batteries are used to power everything from smart-phones to the South Australian power grid. So what happened in those eleven years between 1980 and 1991? The batteries were revolutionary from the beginning, but, like many revolutionary technologies, they needed time and investment for the technology to mature and the markets to manifest.

The batteries worked their way along a downward-sloping cost curve that mirrored the one Wurzbacher drew on my notepad, until they became viable for commercial use by Sony. It’s not an atypical story for innovative technologies, and it can currently be seen at different stages in solar panels and electric fuel cells. Market forecasters now predict that in the next six years—almost exactly thirty years after the first commercial battery was released—the lithium-ion battery market will grow to almost one hundred billion dollars, to say nothing of the trillions of dollars that the industries powered by the batteries are worth.

The current global market for CO2, bubbled into soft drinks and injected into oil fields, already exceeds one trillion dollars per year.

One hundred billion dollars is large, but the carbon-capture market could potentially be far larger. In an interview with Newsweek, Graciela Chichilnisky, founder of Global Thermostat, said that the current demand for compressed CO2—the CO2 bubbled into soft drinks and injected into oil fields—already exceeds one trillion dollars per year. In the long-term, as the world warms—as oceans rise, fires spread, and ecosystems degrade—the removal of the gas will itself fuel the demand. In a research article in Earth System Dynamics last July, a team led by James Hansen, the director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, estimated that we—or, more likely, our grandchildren—will be forced to spend between eight trillion and five hundred and thirty-eight trillion dollars (seriously) to scrub our atmosphere of CO2 in the latter half of the century. (A pretty wide range of values to be sure; the amount depends on how successful we are at curbing future emissions.)

Saving the world is an expensive proposition. The investment to even make that possible, though, is needed now.

We—or, more likely, our grandchildren—will be forced to spend between eight trillion and five hundred and thirty-eight trillion dollars to scrub our atmosphere of CO2 in the latter half of the century.

At its current adjusted prices, the oil industry has a market capitalization of $1.7T per year.

Teslas are on the roads today because of investments made into lithium-ion batteries in the 1980’s. Governments, particularly heavily-partisan ones in a field as politically-charged as energy, are fickle. So far they have been slow to warm to direct air capture, which has left the door wide open for private investment.

When talking about his company’s growth potential, Gebald, normally so soft-spoken that I have to crank my computer’s volume all the way up to hear him on my recordings, became full-throated. “Climeworks enables us to build up a new industry with two hundred million dollars, period. The potential of this industry is as big as today’s oil industry.”

 

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There’s a popular saying among the townsfolk in Dr. Friedmann’s fictional town of Carbonville. It’s used when describing the solution to global warming, or at least how to regulate the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It has many versions, but it generally goes something like this: “there is no silver bullet, just silver buckshot.”

It’s a cute line, meant to suggest (correctly) that no single technology or policy can solve the problem. But Friedmann has an issue with it. “I’ve always had a problem with the silver-anything metaphor. We’re not hunting werewolves.” He shook his head and looked out the conference room window. “If you want to use a metaphor of killing things, you need a bunch of Howitzer rounds to kill enough things to just take care of it.” Global warming isn’t a mythical beast; there isn’t one perfect combination of materials that can destroy it, and to wait for such a combination just leads to inaction. The practical solution, really, is to empty the proverbial silos.

Some fear that governmental stagnation to engage in climate mitigation is due to a belief that technologies, like direct air carbon capture, will undo harmful emissions in the future.

But convincing the world that direct-air capture should even be in the arsenal has been trickier than simply figuring out its economics; possibly the heaviest of all of its albatrosses has been philosophical: the perception, especially in the scientific community, that DAC is a classic moral hazard.

These critics contend that it is actually detrimental to global warming relief efforts, that its mere existence causes us to make bad decisions in the short-term, deprioritizing current carbon policy and de-incentivizing investment in other, more immediately impactful emissions-reducing technologies. (Why fight for environmental legislation or spend a bit more to use clean energy today when this will all be solved sometime in the future with a giant Hoover?) In short, that it leads to complacency now and catastrophe later. After all, you’re more likely to jump out of an airplane if you believe you have a parachute.

From a chemical engineering perspective, they certainly have a point—for example, as mentioned earlier, equipping all production plants with flue filters is incontrovertibly more immediately cost-effective than investing in DAC technology—but the total perspective risks short-sightedness. DAC will take time to develop, certainly, but controlling CO2 emissions is not a short-term fight. “If you’re not into a killing-things metaphor—if you’re into a building-things metaphor—we need all the bricks we can get,” Friedmann said. “Big bricks and small bricks are both a part of that mix.”  The problem is so big, and will be fought over so many years, that to dismiss a technology that could prove crucially consequential—a “big brick”—ten or twenty or fifty years down the line seems imprudent, if not myopic.

To Friedmann, it boils back down to carbon math. “You are only moral if you do the hard math and say ‘Yeah, we need it all.’” When you’re building a house—or perhaps rebuilding a damaged one—you’d much rather find yourself with too many bricks than too few.

Which brings us back to the significance of Gebald and Wurzbacher’s one-percent-of-global-emissions goal. Wurzbacher described it like this: “One percent for a company is basically a statement that says ‘we are going to be a large-scale contributor to this problem in the world, and while we want to be the first and the leading one, there need to be others.’ It’ll never be one company doing one hundred percent of the work.” It’s not competition; it’s cooperation.

“The only slippery slope,” Friedmann said, “is the righteousness to believe that you alone can do it.”

Miasma, personified as Death taking a row astride the Thames.

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In the twenty-three year period between 1831 and 1854, the city of London, shining capital of the sprawling British Empire, was ravaged three separate times by cholera. The disease was fast-spreading and ambivalent to social class; by the end of the third outbreak, more than 30,000 people had died. The cause of the outbreaks was unknown, though it was thought to be miasmic, since all diseases were assumed to be airborne in those days.

In 1849, a physician named Dr. John Snow, having noticed that the disease was particularly deadly in areas supplied by certain water companies, published a paper, largely ignored, hypothesizing that the disease was actually waterborne, that it was the result of the contamination of the once-beautiful River Thames.

The Thames, whose clear waters had for centuries been panegyrized by British poets, was, by that time, an opaque cesspool. The city’s sewer system was old, poorly designed, and ill-equipped to handle both the city’s rapid rise in population and the sudden strain from the advent of the flushing toilet. As a result, much of the city’s waste flowed directly into the river. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Edmund Spenser’s “silver-streaming Thames” had become Charles Dickens’s “deadly sewer.”

John Snow's famed Cholera map, 1858.

John Snow's seminal paper, 1858.

Then came the summer of 1858. Rainfall, which had been light all year, was nonexistent, and temperatures soared to almost one hundred and twenty degrees. As the water level sank, the smell rose, and the city—the stench of which had been gradually getting more putrid over the years—became practically uninhabitable. Parliament, housed on the riverbank, was interrupted, and lawmakers were seen fleeing the building with handkerchiefs pressed to their faces. That summer became known as the Great Stink.

The pollution of the Thames was not new. In the years before the Great Stink, various governmental bodies had thrown small sums of money at scattered companies to fix it, but nothing impactful had been done. Finally, with the problem quite literally under their noses, Parliament was forced to act. By August of that summer, they authorized an enormous sum of money—almost one percent of their entire GDP—to be given to the Metropolitan Board of Works in order to break ground on a sewer reconstruction project. The project was led by Joseph Bazalgette, who by that time had been sitting on his reconstruction design for years without the funding to implement it. Cholera would appear in London just one more time—in 1866, centralized in a location unconnected to Bazalgette’s sewer system—and then never again.

In some ways, London was lucky. If that summer had been mild, or if Parliament hadn’t been seated right next to the river, who knows how long it would have been before a fix was authorized and adequately funded, how much worse the problem would have become, how much more prevalent the disease, how much more expensive the cure. We scrape by as a species by the skin of our teeth. Sometimes we need overwhelming evidence before we’re roused to action, but there are always those of us, waiting in the wings, with a way—a sewer system, a sunscreen, a CO2 collector—to help save us. They just need the opportunity to do so.

A cloudy sky overlooking the Thames.

LAYERS