Shipping carbon emissions from continental Europe to Iceland

Iceland's Carbfix set to import carbon dioxide emissions from European Industries for geological storage.

By Hanno Böck

Like its European neighbors, Switzerland plans to be carbon neutral in 2050. However, even when decarbonizing energy and transport, there will likely remain emissions from industries and agriculture in Switzerland that are hard or impossible to avoid with existing technology.


Researchers from the DemoUpCarma project at ETH Zürich expect that in 2050, these sectors will still emit around 10 million tons of carbon dioxide, down from today’s approximately 37 million tons. There are currently no carbon dioxide storage sites in Switzerland, and the researchers do not expect them to be available any time soon.


To tackle these emissions, the researchers have a bold plan: Carbon dioxide from Swiss industries could be stored 3,000 kilometers away in Iceland. They have already started shipping the first containers.


In Iceland, the company Carbfix operates a successful carbon capture and storage (CCS) project where emissions from geothermal plants and the world’s largest direct air capture facility are stored underground. The carbon dioxide gets dissolved in water and reacts with basalt formations. The carbon is effectively stored in rocks, safe for geological timeframes.


Carbfix is not the only company that wants to store emissions from international industries. The Northern Lights project in Norway has similar plans. But according to professor Marco Mazzotti, who leads the DemoUpCarma project, at the time they wanted to start, Northern Lights was not ready to offtake carbon dioxide. “The only storage site available for us immediately was Carbfix,” said Mazzotti in a conversation with Fathom World.


From a Biogas plant in Bern to Iceland


The carbon dioxide comes from a biogas plant in a wastewater treatment facility in the Swiss city of Bern. Biogas is a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide. To inject the methane into the gas grid, the two gases need to be separated. This process results in almost pure carbon dioxide, which is usually considered a waste byproduct.


The fact that the source of the carbon dioxide is biogas means that the project can deliver negative emissions, as the carbon is of biogenic origin.


Capturing emissions from other industrial facilities would be more challenging because the carbon dioxide content in the flue gas is often relatively low – unlike the biogas upgrading facility, which delivers almost pure carbon dioxide. Capturing such emissions would require an additional, energy-intensive step to separate the carbon dioxide from the flue gas.


The carbon dioxide in Bern gets liquefied and stored in standard ISO tank containers. Each container has a capacity of around 20 tons of carbon dioxide. By truck and train, the containers are delivered to Rotterdam, where they are shipped 2,200 kilometers to Iceland. The logistics company Samskip handles the shipping.


Carbfix operates multiple injection sites at the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. At a new injection site near the town of Helguvik, Carbfix tests a new method of carbon dioxide injection with the Swiss emissions that uses saltwater instead of freshwater.


A project like this raises obvious questions: Does it make sense to transport carbon dioxide thousands of kilometers, and what are the emissions caused by the infrastructure needed to do that?


Marco Mazzotti says he does not have an answer to that, but it is part of what they are trying to find out with the project. He hopes that the efficiency of the complete infrastructure chain will be in the range of 80 percent, meaning that for every ton of carbon stored, around 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted both due to losses and the emissions caused by the energy needed for the liquefaction, transport, and storage infrastructure.


Emissions caused by trains and ships


Most emissions are caused by the train transport – it passes through Germany, which still has relatively high emissions per kilowatt hour – and the shipping. Decarbonizing the transport sector will therefore help bring down those emission losses. Carbfix says it plans to receive carbon dioxide with ships powered with green methanol in the future, but it has no timeframe yet for when that will be possible.


The DemoUpCarma project aims to ship 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually to Iceland. With 20 tons per container, that equates to around one container per week. That sounds quite feasible. However, it gets much more challenging when the amount of carbon dioxide increases.


Transporting the emissions of a single cement plant – of which Switzerland has six – would require around 25.000 containers per year. Alternatives like pipelines on land and dedicated carbon dioxide tanker ships could be an option for large-scale carbon dioxide transport.


The Danish company Dan Unity, which also partners with Carbfix, plans to build carbon dioxide tankers with a capacity of 22,000 cubic meters. They could transport around 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Dan Unity is owned by the shipping companies Evergas and Navigator Gas, both of which have experience shipping liquids and gases for the chemical industry. It would require around 20 shipments per year with such a carbon dioxide tanker to transport the emissions of a cement plant.


To get an idea of the scales needed, Mazzotti compares the expected 10 million tons of carbon dioxide that Switzerland intends to store in CCS projects to today’s oil imports in Switzerland. Those are between 11 and 12 million tons – also in large parts transported by trucks and trains.


The experiences of the DemoUpCarma project also highlight some of the regulatory challenges such projects could face. Iceland has implemented the EU CCS directive, but that would only apply if the project stored more than 100,000 tons. According to an interim report by the project, the Icelandic Environmental Protection Agency had concerns how the imports should be regulated and whether they are a chemical product or waste.


This held up the transport of two containers who were already in Reykjavik. Eventually, the issue was resolved. “The Agency agreed to exempt the CO2 from Icelandic waste regulations as it ‘belongs’ to a research project”, according to DemoUpCarma’s report. Such challenges highlight that up until now, international carbon dioxide emission transport almost never happens, and regulatory agencies have no experience with it.


An import terminal for carbon dioxide


The Icelandic company Carbfix expects that the business of importing carbon dioxide will grow. It plans to build a dedicated carbon dioxide import terminal. This project, the Coda terminal, has received a grant by the EU Innovation Fund. The EU will support the project with 115 million Euros.


Companies within the European Emission Trading System (ETS) can avoid paying for emission allowances if they avoid their emissions with CCS systems like the one provided by Carbfix.


In 2026, Carbfix expects to import 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually with one ship in operation. By 2031, the plan is to import three million tons per year with five ships.


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