Nested in the snow-covered mountains of western Iceland, a maze of turbines and pipes belches thick billows of steam. This mammoth structure is responsible for providing power to a country where 100% of the electricity comes from renewable sources.
The Hellisheidi power station, 25km (15 miles) outside Reykjavik, is Iceland’s main geothermal plant, and is one of the largest in the world.
“Do you feel the vibrations beneath us?”, says Edda Sif Aradottir, the plant’s manager, splashing snow as she stomps her boot on the ground. “It’s the steam coming into the turbines”.
“This is a volcanic area. We harness the volcano’s internal heat to generate electricity and provide hot water for the city’s heating system, our swimming pools and showers. We Icelanders like our showers really hot!”
Hellisheidi is not just an accomplished provider of green energy. It is also the site for a scientific breakthrough; an experiment to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and turn it into stone – forever. Thus keeping this greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and putting a dent in global warming.
“Mankind has been burning fossil fuels since the industrial revolution and we have already reached the tipping point for CO2 levels”, says Dr Aradottir. “This is one of the solutions that can be applied to reverse that”.
Called CarbFix, the project is pioneered by an international consortium led by Reykjavík Energy, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Iceland and Columbia University.
Since experiments began in 2014, it’s been scaled up from a pilot project to a permanent solution, cleaning up a third of the plant’s carbon emissions.
“More importantly, we are a testing ground for a method that can be applied elsewhere, be that a power plant, heavy industries or any other CO2 emitting source”, says Dr Aradottir.
The process starts with the capture of waste CO2 from the steam, which is then dissolved into large volumes of water.
“We use a giant soda-machine”, says Dr Aradottir as she points to the gas separation station, an industrial shed that stands behind the roaring turbines.
“Essentially, what happens here is similar to the process in your kitchen, when you are making yourself some sparkling water: we add fizz to the water”.