Companies suck carbon from the atmosphere using “direct air capture”. How it works? – The European Sting – Critical news and insights on European politics, economics, foreign affairs, business and technology

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Training Content


  • Direct air capture involves removing CO2 from the air and storing or reusing it.
  • The world’s first large-scale factory is being built in the United States.
  • Companies such as Microsoft, Shopify and Swiss Re buy direct air capture to offset their emissions.
  • But a massive increase in installations is needed to help the world reach net zero by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

The world’s journey to net zero emissions takes us down many new roads in technology. Electric vehicles and renewables are among those helping us stop emitting carbon, but direct air capture takes another approach: sucking the CO2 we emit into the atmosphere.

Direct air capture could be a solution to tackle hard-to-avoid carbon emissions – like those from some industries – and to eliminate the carbon emitted over the past few decades.

Here is a quick explanation.

energy, mining, metals, blockchain

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help businesses reduce their carbon emissions?

Business leaders in mining, metals and manufacturing are changing their approach to integrating climate considerations into complex supply chains.

The forums Blockchain Initiative for Mining and Metalscreated to accelerate an industry solution for supply chain visibility and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) requirements, released a unique proof-of-concept to trace emissions across the value chain using distributed ledger technology.

Building Resilient Global Value Chains | Sustainable development…

Developed in collaboration with industry experts, it not only tests the technological feasibility of the solution, but also explores the complexities of supply chain dynamics and defines requirements for future data use.

In doing so, the proof of concept responds to stakeholder demands to create visibility and accountability “from mine to market”.

The World Economic Forum Mining and Metals Community is a group of high-level peers dedicated to ensuring the long-term sustainability of their industry and society. Learn more about their work and how to reach them, via our Impact story.

What is Direct Air Capture?

Direct air capture – DAC for short – involves capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air. The CO2 can then be stored permanently, ie it stops contributing to global warming.

A direct air capture plant in Iceland captures 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stores it in basalt, a type of volcanic rock. The CO2 then mineralizes for about twenty years, turning into stone in a natural reaction with the rock.

The captured CO2 can also be reused in other industries. In food processing, it can be used to carbonate beverages. And in aviation, it’s combined with hydrogen to create a low-carbon synthetic fuel.

A graph showing worldwide direct air capture operational capability, 2010-2021
The amount of direct air capture capacity in the world is growing rapidly, but it must grow even faster to help the world achieve net zero emissions. Image: IEA

Two technologies are used in direct air capture – liquid and solid DAC. Liquid DAC involves passing air through a chemical solution to remove any carbon dioxide. In the solid DAC, the CO2 is captured in a filter system.

Where is direct aerial capture today?

There are 19 direct air capture installations in service worldwide, says the International Energy Agency (IEA). Of these, 18 are in Canada, Europe and the United States, according to the IEA report. Direct Air Capture: a key technology for Net Zero.

New factories are also under construction. The world’s first large-scale plant is under development in the United States. It will be able to capture up to 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year and should be operational in the mid-2020s.

Large companies such as technology companies Microsoft, Shopify e-commerce company and reinsurance company Swiss Re are beginning to invest in DAC phase-out as a way to offset their carbon emissions.

What is the potential of DAC?

To help the world achieve net zero emissions by 2050, direct air capture technologies need to capture more than 85 million tonnes of CO2 in 2030, rising to 980 million tonnes in 2050, the IEA estimates.

A graph showing the overall CO2 capture from the DACS and DAC with use in the Net Zero scenario
The AIE has put numbers on where the direct air capture must be. Image: IEA

However, this means that “significant and accelerated scale-up” is needed, as DAC plants currently capture only around 10,000 tonnes of CO2, according to the IEA.

The good news is that momentum is building. Governments have committed nearly $4 billion to develop and deploy DAC plants since the start of 2020, according to the IEA. Australia, Canada, Japan and the UK are among the countries investing in DAC research and development.

Pioneers of direct air capture technology

Of them companies that already capture CO2 from the air are Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Both are World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers – start-ups and growing companies from around the world that are leading the way in new technologies and innovations.

Based in Switzerland Climeworks opened its first DAC factory in 2017 and now has 15 machines in operation. It operates the Icelandic factory mentioned above – currently the largest in the world – and uses a form of direct solid air intake using filters.

Climeworks helps businesses including Swarovski jewelry brand and online grocery ocado to reduce, offset and eliminate CO2 emissions.

Based in Canada Carbon Engineering uses a form of direct liquid air capture and works with partners to develop the world’s first large-scale DAC installation. It’s in the United States Permian Basin, a shale oil and gas producing area between Texas and New Mexico, and is designed to permanently lock between 500,000 and 1 million tons per year of CO2 in rocks deep underground.

Engineering started on another Same-scale DAC plant planned in Scotland.

Net zero technologies

To accelerate the development of emerging technologies that will help the world reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050, the World Economic Forum and its U.S. government partners have established the Firstcomers Coalition.

It is a public-private partnership that works across sectors and businesses. The coalition says about half of the technologies the world needs to get to net zero are still in development or at the prototype stage.