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US takes $1.2 billion gamble on carbon-sucking vacuums

August 12, 2023

The US government will spend $1.2 billion to help build giant machines that suck carbon dioxide pollution from the air.

Run by Swiss company Climeworks, Orca facility in Iceland sucks carbon dioxide directly from the air and buries it as rocks deep underground
Swiss company Climeworks, which will take part in project in Louisiana, already runs Orca direct air capture and storage plant in IcelandImage: Cover-Images/imago images

The US Department of Energy said on Friday it would invest up to $1.2 billion (€1.1 billion) in two Direct Air Capture (DAC) facilities — in Texas and Louisiana — to suck carbon from the air.

Each site would have carbon-sucking vacuums that could eliminate up to one million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is equal to the yearly emissions of 445,000 gas-powered cars.

"Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won't reverse the growing impacts of climate change," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.

"We also need to remove the CO2 that we've already put in the atmosphere."

What is DAC technology?

Direct Air Capture (DAC), also known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), uses chemical reactions to remove CO2 from the air.

Carbon dioxide can then be stored underground or used in concrete or aviation fuel products.

The technology for direct air capture machines is relatively untested, and currently, only a few are operational worldwide.

But the technology needs to become much cheaper quickly to roll out at the scale needed to affect the planet.

"If we deploy this at scale, this technology can help us make serious headway toward our net-zero emissions goals while we are still focused on deploying, deploying, deploying more clean energy at the same time," Granholm said. 

The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers the direct capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as one of the necessary methods to combat global warming.

The world's biggest carbon capture plant

Who are the contractors?

Project Cypress in Louisiana is run by US non-profit Battelle. It will partner with another American company, Heirloom Carbon Technology, and the Swiss firm Climeworks, which already operates a DAC plant in Iceland.

"It depends on multiple factors, but I would wish to have first capture in 2025/2026,” Jan Wurzbacher, Climeworks director and founder, told Reuters.

"Just two years ago, we were in a petri dish where we were removing grams of CO2 from the air," Heirloom CEO Shashank Samala said.

"If we continue this pace of exponential growth every year, I think a billion tons a year is definitely, definitely achievable."

The Texas project will be led by the American company Occidental and other partners, including Carbon Engineering. It could be developed to eliminate up to 30 million tons of CO2 per year, according to a statement from Occidental.

dh/lo (AFP, Reuters)