Our vision for 2025: To capture 1% of global CO2 emissions from the air. Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, founder team, Co-CEOs of Climeworks AG
The fight against climate change: Depositing CO2
18 metal structures, stacked on top of each other in three rows, stand on the roof of the Hinwil incineration plant, shimmering in the sunlight. What looks like a wall of speakers or air conditioning units is actually made up of devices that remove CO2 from the air. The technology, developed by the Zurich-based start-up Climeworks, could help mitigate global warming.
The Climeworks story began six years before the company was even founded. On a sunny October day in 2003, ETH Zurich opened its doors to prospective students, and Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald met for the first time. Both had come to Switzerland from Germany because of their enthusiasm for sport and their love of the mountains and lakes. Over sausages and beer, they discovered that they had even more in common: Both saw their studies as a lever to set bigger things in motion – and founding their own company was the key to achieving this.
CO2: The main cause of global warming
Four years later, ETH Professor Aldo Steinfeld was carrying out research at the Institute for Renewable Energy on a solar reactor that produced fuel from sunlight, water, and CO2. "Professor Steinfeld offered a research program investigating the extraction of CO2 from the air. We immediately recognized that it was the perfect fit; CO2 became a theme for us," says Christoph Gebald.
CO2 (carbon dioxide), together with other greenhouse gases, is a crucial factor in global warming. Average temperatures in Switzerland have increased by two degrees since records began in the 19th century. Unless countermeasures are taken, this will result in a rise in sea levels and droughts in the coming decades, and many people's livelihoods will be under threat, either directly or indirectly.
The problem is certainly nothing new; the 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to below two degrees compared with pre-industrial levels, and the Swiss climate protection targets specify a 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. But how can this be done?
Storing CO2 permanently in stone
Although most of the proposed solutions are based on the idea of reducing CO2 emissions, Climeworks is pursuing another, complementary strategy: "Our systems filter CO2 out of the air. It is then stored in liquid form before being sold – for example, to beverage manufacturers or for greenhouses. In these cases, the CO2 balance is climate neutral," Wurzbacher explains. "Or," Gebald adds, "the CO2 is pumped as a gas into rocky ground, where it is deposited in the rock (mineralized) and stored permanently. This is a CO2-negative application: It reduces the carbon dioxide content in the air."
This mineralization works best in geothermally active regions with basalt rocks in the ground – like in Iceland, where the rock reaches temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius. "All over the world," Gebald continues, "there are plenty of areas that are suitable for absorbing CO2; this is not a bottleneck. At the moment, the limiting factor is far more likely to be access to renewable energy." "The energy must be cost-effective and clean," Wurzbacher continues, "as is the case on our site at the incineration plant, or next to a geothermal power plant in Iceland, where another of our plants is located." Another is currently being built in southern Italy and will be powered by solar energy.
The Climeworks start-up
Since it was founded in 2009, Climeworks has grown to have 60 employees. Wurzbacher and Gebald are joint managing directors, each with a slightly different area of responsibility. "But there are many situations where we act as a pair. This has proved to be a successful approach – we work well together as a team. We often only have to look at each other to know what the other is thinking," says Wurzbacher. Gebald finishes: "Our friendship comes first, even ahead of business."
Climeworks has already been through four rounds of financing in its nine years of existence. "It's a kind of cascade: securing new financing, hiring employees, building systems, and then it starts all over again," explains Gebald. The young company has only recently started working with Credit Suisse, opening a business account. Wurzbacher explains what the start-up expects from a major bank: "As a young company, we need to be very efficient and handle our resources wisely. We expect the same from a bank that markets itself as a bank for entrepreneurs."
Clearing consciences has a positive effect
Climeworks is currently building an offering that it hopes will appeal to individuals and businesses: "Let's imagine an entrepreneur. He has fulfilled his dream and now wants to go on a world tour," says Gebald. Wurzbacher takes up the thread: "At the same time, the entrepreneur doesn't turn a blind eye to climate issues, so he doesn't want his leisure activities to increase his CO2 footprint." Back to Gebald again: "We can offer this entrepreneur a solution: He can commission us to remove his CO2 emissions from the air. Or even to deposit the emissions he has generated throughout his entire life. Even if the assignment from this entrepreneur won't save the climate, pioneering clients like this are very important to us, as they help us to develop the technology further and to make significant additional reductions in costs."
The Climeworks founders also see companies who prioritize sustainability and environmental friendliness as potential clients. "To be able to say that they operate on a climate-neutral basis gives these companies credibility; to say that they operate CO2-negatively makes them pioneers," Gebald says with conviction.
The two young entrepreneurs are also in negotiations with international government representatives, because it is they who bear the ultimate responsibility for measures to reduce the overall CO2 content in the air. "There are interesting tools, such as the CO2 tax in Switzerland, which could be used on a large scale. But they still need to go further," says Wurzbacher. "However, on a political and regulatory level, the wheels turn very slowly," says Gebald. "Companies would have the opportunity to lead the way ahead of governments."
Vision 1 and 25
Waiting is not an option for the two company bosses. "We have a vision," says Wurzbacher, "which can be summarized in two numbers: 1 and 25." "We want to remove 1 percent of global CO2 emissions from the earth's atmosphere by 2025," explains Gebald. These are lofty goals, which can only be achieved through immense growth. Wurzbacher makes it clear that this is definitely the intention: "We don't see ourselves as a small SME ten years from now, producing three systems a year with 100 employees. Our idea only makes sense if it is implemented on a very large scale. In other words, if hundreds of thousands of shipping containers of our systems are installed worldwide." And Gebald is even clearer: "We are not building a new company. We are laying the foundations for a new industry."
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