The Climate Engineers Sucking CO₂ From the Atmosphere—and Making Money Doing It

More than a decade into their friendship, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher can’t decide which of them is the thinker and which is the doer. They met in 2003 during their first week as undergraduates at ETH Zurich, a Swiss technical university, where they studied engineering and quickly bonded over their shared loves for mountain climbing and beer. Also, “we were kind of would-be entrepreneurs from the beginning,” Gebald says. They’ve been egging each other on ever since, swapping big-idea and get-things-done roles.

Climeworks, the company they started in Zurich in 2009, was inspired by Gebald’s master’s thesis, which applied an engineering perspective to the removal of carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. In June, when the first of the duo’s carbon-collecting machines went online, they became the first people to make money by de-warming the planet, collecting CO₂ directly from the air and selling it for use in greenhouses.

Each CO₂ collector, called a capture plant, looks like a 7-foot-tall box fan with a tiny jet engine inside. As its turbine sucks in air, chemical filters isolate the greenhouse gas. It can then be pumped for use as is, but Wurzbacher and Gebald are hoping customers will pay them to sequester it in the ground, permanently. The founders like to cite the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says CO₂ storage will be an essential part of meeting global targets to limit the Earth’s warming. “Climeworks is on the leading edge of this,” says Steve Bohlen, an energy technology program manager at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal research facility near San Francisco. In July, Bohlen cited Climeworks as a company to watch in testimony on carbon capture technology before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on the environment.

Earlier this year the company secured its first commercial partner, contracting with a local farmer of tomatoes and cucumbers to supply 900 tons of CO₂ per year to his greenhouses, where it works as a sort of gaseous fertilizer, speeding up photosynthesis. Climeworks’ founders say their near-term goal is to capture 1 percent of global carbon emissions by 2025, but the grand plan is to help humans remove more CO₂ from the atmosphere than they’re pumping into it. “We’re insurance as the going gets tough,” Wurzbacher says. “The world will need affordable machines that can recork the CO₂ genie on a massive scale, render it usable or harmless in storage.” Working around the clock, each capture plant can vacuum about 50 tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere a year, Wurzbacher says. He and Gebald declined to share pricing details but said costs will fall rapidly once production ramps up.

Some costs, however, are tough to predict. “Our biggest headache planning ahead is second-guessing politicians. Political support for climate protection is prone to wobble,” Gebald says. “Even so, we’re witnessing an independent private-sector drive to curb CO₂ that’s resilient to politics. We’re counting on a big role for Climeworks in the emerging carbon economy.”

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