Founders: Jan Wurzbacher, Christoph Gebald (co-CEOs)
Headquarters: Zurich, Switzerland
Funding: $810 million
Key technologies: N/A
Previous appearances on Disruptor 50 List: 0
Reducing carbon emissions may be the most important part of the efforts to slow climate change, but it may not be enough. Increasingly, there’s a focus on capturing carbon from the atmosphere.
Swiss startup Climeworks AG was among the first to pursue this new technology. The company created a demo prototype in 2012 and launched its first direct carbon capture plant in Iceland in 2021. The facility, called Orca, looks like a warehouse surrounded by four giant air filters. It can draw in 4,000 tons of carbon a year. The company partners with CarbFix, which dissolves the captured carbon dioxide in water, then combines the mixture with basalt rock formations. The carbon dioxide converts into solid carbonate minerals in about two years.
This past June, Climeworks broke ground in Iceland on its second direct air capture facility, called Mammoth. Once completed, the plant will have the capacity to draw and store up to 36,000 tons of carbon a year. The company is reportedly eyeing the U.S. market next and has teamed up with Heirloom, a California-based carbon capture firm, and Battelle, a non-profit firm, to bid for a $500 million U.S. grant to commercialize its idea.
What’s most notable about the approach is the removal of residual and historic CO2 emissions that are already in the atmosphere, which produces negative emissions. Much of the carbon capture technology being piloted, on the other hand, aims to prevent new CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere, capturing it at an industrial source, such as a smokestack.
Supporting the company are not only investors, but corporate clients. Climeworks started providing certified carbon removal services to Microsoft, Spotify and Stripe earlier this year for an undisclosed price. Their customer base currently includes more than 160 companies and more than 18,000 individual supporters who pay Climeworks to offset their personal emissions.
While direct air capture and storage technology is relatively new, interest is heating up. Climeworks raised $650 million in April of last year. Meanwhile, Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify and McKinsey said they were teaming up to create Frontier, which will invest nearly $1 billion in carbon removal. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill included $3.5 billion in investment by the government into direct air capture technology, and has also spurred energy giants including ExxonMobil to get serious about new projects, while both Europe and the U.K. have committed to capture 5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
In Climeworks early days, it wasn’t clear that enough support would surround the idea.
“Back in 2009, the environment was definitely very different,” Climeworks co-CEO and Founder Jan Wurzbacher told CNBC in a June 2022 interview. “There was an ongoing climate debate, but it was more a debate about how can we avoid emissions. And when we came up with the method of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, many people said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s not waste our time with that.'”
Now the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes carbon dioxide removal in its recommendations for addressing global warming. “CDR is also an essential element of scenarios that limit warming to 1.5°C or likely below 2°C by 2100, regardless of whether global emissions reach near zero, net zero or net negative levels,” its 2022 technical update stated.
Despite this interest and billions being invested, carbon capture and storage still has many challenges, starting with cost and scalability. The power needed to suck carbon out of the air is significant enough to be a barrier to growth, according to ratings agency BeZero Carbon. There are also far cheaper ways to take carbon out of the air, like by planting trees, though that requires more land.
—CNBC’s Cat Clifford contributed reporting.
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Correction: Climeworks no longer sells some of the carbon dioxide it removes from the atmosphere for use in sparkling water or soft drinks. Climeworks raised $650 million in April 2022; it does not disclose an exact valuation. An earlier version of this article misstated these facts.