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The weather is horrendous in early January: sheets of icy water slam the few pedestrians that dare to venture outside. Even the Zurich countryside, which is usually rather bucolic, is plunged into grey, morose gloom.
“The weather is great today, they’re more efficient when it’s cold and humid,” said Daniel Egger, head of Marketing & Sales at Climeworks AG. “They” are 18 huge ventilators that go by the name of DAC-18 (Direct Air Capture), installed on the roof of the Hinwil incineration plant since May 2017 in three rows of six. The ventilators take in ambient air to extract the CO2.
This setup, the first of its kind in the world, is the result of several years of research and prototypes, and the start-up’s first commercial application. “Carbon dioxide is taken in by the ventilators, and then reconditioned and used by a neighbouring farm as fertiliser,” said Egger, pointing at a big greenhouse a few hundred metres away. Each ventilator can capture up to 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per day, which is delivered directly to the consumer during the day and stored in liquid form at night. The concept is simple: the ventilator takes in ambient air through a filter made of porous materials (granulates) that retains the CO2 and releases purified air into the atmosphere. The filter is then heated to 100 degrees and the collected CO2 becomes concentrated.
“All estimates are predicting a huge increase in carbon dioxide needs in the coming years”
Daniel Egger, head of Marketing & Sales at Climeworks
Capturing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reselling it seems obvious, but it has never actually been done before. “The technology has existed for a long time,” said Louis Uzor, from Marketing & Sales at Climeworks. “It is often used to purify CO2 produced by humans in confined spaces, such as in submarines, but until now it wasn’t advanced enough to capture the gas in a useful way.”
Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, two engineers and alumni from ETH, founded Climeworks in 2009 with the belief that capturing carbon dioxide could be economically viable. Private investors got involved, including the Zurich Cantonal Bank, and after several prototypes and proofs of concept, the Hinwil installation is the first commercial agreement for the start-up, which has since become an SME with approximately 50 employees. Choosing to set up the installation on the roof of an incineration plant was deliberate: “We need a heat source of 100 degrees to heat the filters and collect the CO2,” said Uzor. “At Hinwil, we can directly use the heat that the plant produces naturally.” Furthermore, Climeworks’ first client, Gebrüder Meier Primanatura (a farm that purchases the carbon gas) is nearby, which facilitates the delivery of the final product.
Now that Climeworks has proven that its technology is effective, the company hopes to install new CO2 extraction platforms in Switzerland and around the world.
Largely unknown to the public, carbon dioxide is a raw material that has several industrial prospects, such as in agrifood – for example in making carbonated drinks – as well as in pharma or synthetic fuel manufacturing. “All estimates are predicting a huge increase in carbon dioxide needs in the coming years,” said Egger, whose enthusiasm is certainly not dampened by the freezing rain. This outlook would facilitate reselling the carbon dioxide collected from the air. The price for captured CO2 is significantly higher than market price, which is currently dominated by the gas and petrol industry, and CO2 is a by-product of petrol. “We expect to reduce our CO2 production costs two- or threefold starting with the next generation of reactors,” said Uzor. The technology is already particularly appealing to regions that don’t have access to a local CO2 production, such as Japan.
But reselling atmospheric carbon dioxide isn’t the only advantage of Climeworks’ technology. “Our core business and our mission is to help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Egger. “The captured CO2 doesn’t necessarily have to be sold. It can also be stored permanently in the ground,” such as in Iceland, where Climeworks is currently launching a new fleet of ventilators. “We believe that a huge market will develop with CO2 extraction for permanent storage in the coming years, as countries continue their environmental commitments with new legislation,” said Egger. In the short term, Climeworks isn’t expecting individual usage, such as solar panels installed on homeowners’ roofs: “Our technology is primarily geared towards industrial use, but at the same time, we are considering possible solutions for individuals.”
“Switzerland has a particularly favourable framework for developing CO2 extraction technologies”
Wendy Lee Queen, professor at EPFL
Wendy Lee Queen, a professor at EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) and an expert in functional inorganic materials, agrees: “The CO2 extraction industry needs appropriate legislation to grow and become profitable.” The engineer, who works on filters made of extremely porous material that she hopes can be used in cars in the near future, is rather optimistic about the industry’s evolution: “Countries now understand the gravity of the climate change situation, which should lead to profound legislative changes, such as a requirement for factories to have carbon-neutral emissions.” Forced to limit their impact on the environment, industries that create pollution should be equipped with CO2 sensors like the ones Climeworks offers. The company’s pioneer status should guarantee it a top spot in the market in the future: “Switzerland has a particularly favourable framework for developing CO2 extraction technologies,” said Queen. “Public authorities are very aware of the problems associated with climate change and atmospheric pollution and are actively encouraging companies to develop solutions. Technologically speaking, Switzerland is at the forefront of CO2 extraction research and “Switzerland has a particularly favourable framework for developing CO2 extraction technologies” Wendy Lee Queen, professor at EPFL companies like Climeworks are particularly well-positioned to benefit from this future market, which I believe will be very promising.”
Already, new start-ups are breaking into the market and developing their own prototypes. Examples include Global Thermostat in the US and Carbon Engineering in Canada, of which Bill Gates is an investor. “We’re thrilled that competition is growing, because we don’t want to be the only company around. This market needs new players in order to progress,” said Egger. “Our industry is like the automobile industry in the 1910s; the technology is functional and ready to go, though still slightly rudimentary, but the concrete prospects are still limited. We’re on the brink of a new era.”
SWISS START-UPS COUNTING ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL REVOLUTION
TYRE RECYCLING SOLUTIONS
The second of tyres
Two billion tyres are thrown away every year and processed in often deplorable conditions. With this in mind, Staffan Ahlgren and Pierre Kladny founded Tyre Recycling Solutions in Gland (VD), a start-up aiming to make recycling tyres profitable. The idea is that a machine will cut the tyre into three flat pieces, which are then treated using innovative techniques to extract various components such as steel wires, synthetic fibres and rubber powder.
Why purchase expensive detergents that are bad for the environment when you could make them yourself ? This novel idea is what drives Aquama, an Aubonne-based start-up that gives both consumers and companies the chance to produce their own detergents and disinfectants with only salt, water and electricity. Founded in 2013, the company already has several clients, including Swiss communes, Geneva Airport and companies such as EasyJet.
Recycled solar panels
In line with the circular economy and sustainable development, Plus MAT, a Vaud start-up from EPFL, builds solar panels from silicon waste. Silicon is the main component of photovoltaic cells. Thanks to a new technology developed by Plus MAT, up to 90% of silicon waste produced when solar panels are cut can be recovered and used to make new cells. An advantage is that the recovered silicon is much less expensive than silicon made from sand.