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Archive for the ‘Aluminium plants in Iceland’ Category

CarbFix becomes a competitive option for CO2 mineralization in Icelandic basalt

In my first article for Energy Monitor, I describe the potential and economics of using the CarbFix procedure for capturing CO2 at point sources, dissolving it in water and injecting it into Icelandic’s porous basalt bedrock where the divalent metal cations of magnesium, iron and calcium in the bedrock react with the dissolved CO2 to form mineral carbonates and fill up pores in the bedrock. These minerals are stable for thousands of years.

In economic terms, the process is on a par with buying carbon credits: the net cost of capturing, dissolving and re-injecting CO2 in Hellisheidi using the CarbFix technology is about $US 25 [€21] per tonne, whereas emission credits cost around $29.5 (€25) per tonne – and are likely to increase in price as time goes on.

In collaboration with Swiss company Climeworks, CarbFix is also going to scale up its Direct Air Capture (DAC) prototype on Hellisheidi, from 40 tonnes per year to 4000 tonnes per year. This will make it the largest DAC project that will capture CO2 for geological storage. But it comes at a price – Climeworks say that their DAC projects in other countries cost $US 600-800 (€507-676). Undoubtedly the price will come down in due course, but at the moment it is unlikely to be important until later this century. Still, it has huge potential, as DAC plants can be set up anywhere.

Iceland will need to buy carbon credits next year for its heavy industry, according to the Environment Agency. But the heavy industries are also looking into the feasibility of using CarbFix for their emissions, so perhaps carbon credits will not be necessary.

Note that the Energy Monitor article was shortened considerably. For instance, this came out:

“Because geothermal plants such as Hellisheidi typically emit the irritant gas hydrogen sulphide (H2S) at the same time as CO2 and the CarbFix system allows other gases to be captured concurrently with CO2, both gases are captured and injected underground at the Hellisheidi plant.”

And here is more that came out:

Iceland (pop. 368,000) gets all of its electricity from renewable sources: geothermal, hydroelectric and wind. Of these, only geothermal power emits CO2, and its emissions are negligible when compared to electricity produced by fossil fuels. About 80% of Iceland’s electricity is used by heavy industry and last week the Environment Agency announced that Iceland would have to buy carbon credits next year, at the end of the Kyoto agreement.

The Environment Agency says that CO2 emissions from ferroalloys and aluminium smelters amounted to 1705.87 ktCO2 in 2019 while preliminary data from the Agency shows that total CO2 emissions for 2019 were 3618.13 ktCO2, excluding LULUCF, international aviation and navigation. Speaking unofficially, as the figures have not been announced publicly, Nicole Keller from the Agency says: “We have calculated that Iceland will need to buy approx. 4000 ktCO2 worth of credits. We do not have any figures for the cost associated with it, though. This is being looked at by a working group under the ministries.”

And more:

The CarbFix team say that they have been operating at an industrial level since 2014 and capture about 33.4 tonnes of CO2 a day or 12,000 tonnes annually.

The CarbFix website shows running totals of the CO2 injected, both on a daily basis and since the project was started on an industrial scale in 2014. By 16 November, over 71,750 tonnes had been injected during the last six years.

On a global scale, the total number of CCS facilities in various stages of development is now 59, with an annual capture capacity of more than 131 million tonnes. Of these, 21 facilities are currently in operation, 3 under construction, and 35 in various stages of development. Two of the large-scale facilities are connected to power plants, Petra Nova Carbon Capture in the USA (whose CCS operations have currently been suspended due to COVID) and Boundary Dam CCS in Canada (capacity 1 Mtpa), with the remainder 19 being in industrial applications. The CarbFix plant is not regarded as a large-scale facility because its capacity is small in global terms.

On a global scale, Iceland could theoretically accommodate over 400 GtCO2 in its active rift zone – far more than Iceland would ever be able to use. And for that matter, far more than the 107 GtCO2 that the International Energy Agency predicts will be in storage in 2060.

Half-built, abandoned aluminium smelter potentially to be used for fish farming

Way back in 2008, Century Aluminium decided to construct an aluminium plant capable of producing 250,000 tonnes of aluminium annually (although they said that 360,000 would be more cost-effective) in Helguvik, southwest Iceland. The smelter was supposed to start operation in 2010. But it encountered numerous problems, primarily concerned with energy, and basically gave up on the project in 2016 after arbitration invalidated Century’s agreement with energy company HS Orka.

Century kept the site, though, with its half-built smelter buildings which are said to have cost $US 150 million.

Now, however, Century have signed a Declaration of Intent with Samherji, who want to use the premises for fish farming. Samherji is Iceland’s biggest fishery company, which has also been under scrutiny because of alleged bribery with Namibian politicians and state officials over fishing quotas, a case that has become known as the Fishrot Files.

Fishrot Files aside, Samherji also have fish-farming operations in other locations not far from Helguvik.

If Samherji eventually buy the half-built smelter, Century will still lose out as the price paid is likely to be nowhere near the costs incurred during smelter construction.

If Samherji decide not to go ahead, another option put forward is hemp farming, which I suspect will be more popular with Icelanders than Samherji is likely to be.

Iceland’s CarbFix CCS scheme hopes to reduce carbon emissions from large-scale industry

I’ve just had an article published in BBC Future about how the CarbFix version of CCS (carbon capture and storage) can potentially be used to reduce CO2 emissions from large-scale industry, which in Iceland’s case consists of three aluminium smelters, a silicon metal smelter and a ferro-silicon plant.

The CarbFix method is adapted for Iceland’s porous, permeable basalt rock. Instead of taking thousands of years for mineralization to take place underground, with CarbFix it only takes 1-2 years. The procedure has been used to capture both CO2 and hydrogen sulphide from the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, where CarbFix is in operation, but potentially it could be used for other gases. Read the article to find out more!

A great deal of emphasis in CCS has been put on Direct Air Capture, which is also discussed in the article. Part of the reason for the expense is the need to capture and fix small concentrations of target gases, which is more challenging. A small DAC system is now in operation at Hellisheidi.

Using funds from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the four-year Geothermal Emission Control (GECO) project is investigating the use of CarbFix in Germany, Italy and Turkey near geothermal fields as well as Iceland. As the bedrock in these countries is not basalt, the initial groundwork involves carrying out background studies of potential injection sites, such as the potential of different rock types to mineralize CO2 and permeability. Injection is due to start in 2021.

Emissions from Iceland’s power plants are minimal compared to those in other countries. Nevertheless, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company that operates three geothermal power stations, is going to build a gas capture plant at one of its geothermal plants, Krafla, using CarbFix to capture the CO2 that is emitted, and in so doing intends to work towards becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

Because BBC attracts a global audience, my editor wanted me to include information on the processes involved in  conventional CCS as well, which I did. Currently, there are 2 large-scale power plants with CCS in operation, but the number of large-scale CCS facilities globally number 21: 2 of these are in power, while the remaining 19 are in industrial applications. I was originally given misleading information on the number of large-scale CCS plants operating, but after the article was published I was told the correct figures (see above), with which my editor says she’ll amend the article (she hasn’t done so yet).



Difficult silicon market hinders sale of Helguvik smelter

Iceland’s Arion Bank, which has a number of holding companies including Stakksberg, the company entailed with the task of trying to sell the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik originally owned by United Silicon and closed down by the Environment Agency (EA) in September 2017, has sent out a statement saying that they have reduced the value ascribed to Stakksberg from 6.9 billion kronur (USD 52.9 million) at the end of March 2019 to 3.2 billion kronur (USD 25.6 million) nine months later.

Stakksberg has been rectifying some of the problems with the smelter identified by the EA, and has been trying to find a buyer for almost two years. The smelter’s original owner, United Silicon, went bankrupt in January 2018, but in December 2017 they too were searching for buyers.

According to Stakksberg’s homepage, the idea was to have the smelter up and running in the last quarter of 2020.


Arion Bank says that because of “uncertainty in the market, several manufacturers have reduced their production or closed smelters. Thus unused manufacturing capacity is available that might well have a negative effect on the sale of the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik”.

If they have done their homework, potential buyers – if there are any – would be aware of the problems faced by PCC Bakki Silicon in the north, who asked for more funding last year. PCC have also had unexpected problems with Iceland’s winter weather, and say that the problems they have encountered were not those they were expecting – despite using best available technology, etc. None of this would be of any comfort to prospective buyers of the Helguvik smelter down south.

People involved in ASH, the campaign group against the reopening of the Helguvik silicon smelter, are overjoyed however, as there was a lot of opposition by locals to the smelter during the short time that it was operating.

It’s not just the silicon metal industry that is facing problems. Because of worsening conditions in the aluminium market, which are “very demanding”, Iceland’s oldest aluminium smelter is going to operate at 15% reduced capacity in 2020, with a corresponding decrease in electricity use. The plant is currently Iceland’s second largest user of electricity.


This smelter, which is situated on the outskirts of the capital city, is currently owned by Rio Tinto Alcan but was searching for a new owner two years ago. Norsk Hydro was going to buy it but the sale fell through seven months later.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Icelandic smelter at Straumsvik, due to high electricity costs – which Icelanders consider are actually very low – and “historically low” aluminium prices. They may even close the smelter. The review is expected to be completed within the next few months.


Social impact assessment important in accessing perceptions of projects

Iceland’s environment ministry has just held a symposium on social impacts of energy projects in Iceland, in particular in relation to new power plants envisaged as part of the 4th Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Key speakers were a couple now living in the Netherlands: an academic from the University of Gröningen, Frank Vanclay, and his practitioner wife, Ana-Maria Esteves, who works with the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

Much of the symposium was related to social environmental assessment itself, irrespective of country. So for instance when a fracking project is announced, there might be impacts from vehicle noise of various types, exhaust fumes, increased accident risk, injury or even death, costs of road repair from increased traffic, and changing character of the town (less peaceful, etc.). These are balanced by the potential for local income from spending by drivers, plus other services for drivers.

Everything is social, Frank said: landscape analysis; archeological and heritage impacts; community, cultural and linguistic impacts; demographic and economic impacts; gender issues; health and psychological impacts; political issues such as human rights; resource issues, and indigenous issues. Social impacts depend on project characteristics, as well as characteristics of the community, individuals and any proposed mitigation. Impacts cannot be measured in advance, but social impacts should be done before environmental impacts. Speculation starts as soon as there is even a rumour of a proposed development, he says. If there is no consensus, projects should not proceed.

As an activist, I found his slide on the different types of protest interesting.


Ana said that “the purpose of benefit-sharing is to retain part of a project’s economic benefits in the region where the project is located”. These may be voluntary or non-voluntary, monetary or non-monetary. Who decides, who distributes, who benefits? And how do people perceive negative aspects?

The Icelanders who spoke brought up local issues. Birna Björk Árnadóttir from the Planning Agency brought up the case of a proposed hydropower plant, Hvalár, in an isolated region of northwest Iceland where people have been divided into two factions: proponents (mainly locals) who say “this is our project, let us decide” and opponents, who say “to whom do the fjords belong”?

In line with some of what Ana said earlier in the symposium, developers of this project have promised various benefits for the local villagers.

In terms of social impact assessments for power plants, the following should be covered: access to electricity and electrical safety, population changes, land use, employment, property value, fringe benefits and perks, public health, cultural heritage, and tourism and recreation. Employment weighs heavily in the assessments, whereas tourism and recreation are usually the most-researched factors.

In Iceland, social impact assessment has only been carried out with large projects such as construction of the dam and aluminium plant in East Iceland. Given the proximity of the currently non-operating silicon metal smelter in Helguvik, south-west Iceland, to local communities, it would have been better if a social impact assessment had been carried out there first. Stakksberg, the company set up by Arion Bank to see to the amendments and potential sale of the smelter, could still decide to carry out a social impact assessment for the project – but I doubt they will.



Are Iceland’s aluminium smelters in trouble?

Aluminium companies in Iceland have not been doing too well recently. The original smelter just outside the capital at Straumsvik, which was opened 50 years ago and is now owned by multinational Rio Tinto but is up for sale, had an “incident” 10 days ago when an arc flash formed within one of its pots. Luckily, it happened at a time when no one was present in the room, as otherwise it could have been fatal.


For safety reasons, all of the 160 pots in that pot room have been switched off – this represents about a third of the smelter’s production and represents a serious dent in the company’s operations. Last year, the company made a loss of about $US 41.3 million, so this setback doesn’t help – and won’t make the smelter easier to sell either.

Don’t bother looking for information about the incident on the company’s Facebook page or their website, as it isn’t there!

What has sparked my curiosity is that both the CEO of  East Iceland Fjardaal aluminium smelter, Magnus Thor Guðmundsson, and the Icelandic Senior Vice-President of Alcoa globally, Tomas Mar Sigurdsson, have announced their resignations very recently. Tomas Mar started off at the Icelandic plant before becoming involved with Alcoa Europe. He only became Senior Vice-President in November last year – not long ago.

Magnus Thor has been in various positions of responsibility within the East Iceland plant.

So is it coincidence that both decided to leave at a similar time? Well, the mother company’s finances have not been good. In the first quarter of 2019, Alcoa corporation announced a loss of $US 199 million while the second quarter loss was $US 402 million. So possibly they sensed that something was coming.

Alcoa, however, always add a paragraph about “forward-looking statements” to their annual reports, which presumably prevents them from being sued. This term seems to be American in origin but I suspect can be used in a variety of industries. Check out this explanation that they give:

Forward-looking statements include those containing such words as “anticipates,” “believes,” “could,” “estimates,” “expects,” “forecasts,” “goal,” “intends,” “may,” “outlook,” “plans,” “projects,” “seeks,” “sees,” “should,” “targets,” “will,” “would,” or other words of similar meaning.

This concept is interesting in itself and can surely be applied to many companies who want to be somewhat ambiguous in their intentions.

The third aluminium company, Nordural, is owned by Century Aluminium and located at Grundartangi in West Iceland. Unlike the other smelters, this plant was operated with a profit of just over $US 94 million, though profits were down on the previous year by nearly $US 25 million.

Heavy industry in Iceland accounts for 82-83% all electricity produced. The Fjardaal smelter is the biggest user, and is responsible for 34% of the country’s electricity usage (and pays the lowest cost for it of all three smelters). Rio Tinto is responsible for 23% of electricity used and the Nordural plant uses 12%. Other heavy industry accounts for the rest.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Straumsvik smelter, due to high electricity costs – which Icelanders consider are actually very low – and “historically low” aluminium prices. They may even close the smelter. The review is expected to be completed within the next few months.



Heavy industry in Iceland looks to CarbFix to become carbon-neutral

Iceland’s four largest CO2 emitters, three of which are aluminium smelters and the other a ferro-silicon plant, have signed a Letter of Intent with the Icelandic government to look for ways to become carbon neutral by 2040. The PCC silicon metal smelter at Bakki, which is another large emitter, is also expected to sign – “although our first priority is to get the operation running properly,” according to the environmental officer there.

The aim is to thoroughly investigate whether the CarbFix method for storing CO2 can become a viable option, both technically and financially, for storing CO2 emissions from these companies.

CarbFix was set up originally in 2007 in conjunction with the Hellisheidi geothermal power station, where CO2 is captured from steam and dissolved in water at pressure. The water is then injected into underground basalt rock at a depth of 500-800 m, where it forms carbonate minerals such as calcite within a few years. These carbonate minerals are stable on a geological time-scale.


Annual capacity at the Hellisheidi plant is around 12,000 tonnes CO2, which accounts for about a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions. The Hellisheidi plant also removes hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from the steam, but this will not be an issue with the companies intending to become carbon-neutral by 2040.

In 2017, a pilot-scale Direct Air Capture unit was added to the system: this process is independent of location as it mostly relies on energy in the form of heat, which is available as a by-product in numerous industrial processes. Unfortunately the technique is currently too expensive to be used  for making heavy industry climate-neutral.

The project with heavy industry, which is expected to span five to ten years, will involve analysing the concentration of CO2 in emissions, so that similar removal techniques can be applied to those at Hellisheidi. The next step will involve design and manufacture of experimental equipment for capturing and injecting CO2, followed by design and manufacture of similar equipment on a larger scale.

The standard method of carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves pumping oil into old gas fields or using some form of carbon capture and usage (CCU). Edda Sif Aradóttir, who is project manager of CarbFix, says there are both advantages and disadvantages to traditional methods.

“The CarbFix method transforms CO2 into minerals within two years through a chemical process that happens naturally in nature, while traditional methods store CO2 in gas or liquid form. The procedure is thus of a completely different nature and CO2 is permanently removed,” she says.

She says that the main disadvantage is that it requires a considerable amount of water to dissolve the CO2 where chemical changes occur between water and rock. “On the other hand, the water needed by the procedure may be reused, which we in fact do up at Hellisheidi … we are working at developing the process even more so that seawater can be used,” she explained.

Funding for the CarbFix2 project has come from various programmes within the EU, including Horizon 2020, with collaborators in Toulouse, Barcelona and Zurich. CarbFix2 is designed to move the project on from a demonstration phase to one which will lead to an economically viable, complete CCS chain that can be used within Europe and globally.

Future research involves exporting the method to new injection sites in Germany, Italy and Turkey as well as Iceland, and further developing the method so it can be used offshore for permanent mineral storage of CO2 on the sub-sea floor. CarbFix proponents say that there is far more storage available in porous sub-marine basalts than required for the geologic storage of all the anthropogenic CO2 that will ever be produced.

I also wrote about this for ENDS Europe Daily today.


High fluoride levels recorded again near Alcoa aluminium smelter in East Iceland

Routine measurements of fluoride in grass near Alcoa’s Fjardaal aluminium smelter in East Iceland have shown higher than permissible levels for June.

In East and Northeast Iceland, the summer of 2018 has been unusually warm and still, which causes thermal inversions in the fjord, Reydarfjordur, where the smelter is located. The thermal inversions can cause higher fluoride levels.

A 2013 report (in Icelandic) by the East Iceland Nature Research Centre (EINRC) and Innovation Centre Iceland mention thermal inversions and their effect on pollutants. The increase in concentration of pollutants is rapid and substantial when little or no vertical air mixing occurs. The lower the height of the inversion, the more rapid and greater is the concentration of pollutants. They say that the likelihood of thermal inversions is considerable. Also: “The effect of these conditions is probably greater than any other single factor in the measurement of pollutants in Reydarfjordur and affects all parameters as well as sulphur dioxide, such as air-borne particulates and fluorine/fluorides in the air, precipitation and vegetation. Special attention should be paid to the effects in the locality of the smelter.”

Alcoa say that it is important not to read too much into individual results as they can vary considerably for various reasons, including weather conditions. Measurements are taken twice a month by EINRC during the summer months of June, July and August. The average for June 2018 was 46.1 µg F/g, whereas the reference limit for sheep is 40 µg F/g – for horses, the level is much higher, Alcoa say. They say that sheep should not be affected unless they feed for a long time on grass or hay over the reference limits, based on consumption over a year.

However, “Fluoride is a cumulative poison, meaning that animals and plants often register higher levels of the element as they age,” I wrote in an article in Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution and farm animals. Levels of fluoride 12 times more than the reference limit were found in 2016 in the bones of lambs owned by Sigurdur Baldursson, a farmer I talked to for the Al Jazeera article. No doubt they will increase even more this year. He says that although he’s not concerned about the health of his animals because they are closely monitored, there are no Icelandic guidelines for fluoride in sheep bones.

Apparently hay samples did not show increased fluoride levels when samples were taken after the accidental release of fluorine from the plant in 2012, so maybe hay won’t be a problem this year either. However, it’s quite possible that fluoride levels in grass will be higher in July, too, due to the good weather in East Iceland, not to mention May which was also warm and sunny there but when recordings are not made.

We’ll see.








Environmental damage in Iceland minimized

The minke whale hunting season for the year has finished, with a final total of 17 whales. That’s their worst catch ever, and they clearly haven’t caught any since the end of July as I updated Minke whaling gets off to a shaky start on August 1 with the news that only 17 whales had been caught this year. They had been hoping to at least equal last year’s catch of 46 whales, and preferably to exceed it.

The main person behind minke whaling, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, says that they will “most probably” go out whale killing next year, though the hunting season will be shorter, only two to three months. I can’t see how it’s economical for him to employ people for the season and catch so few. Maybe next year there will be no whaling in Iceland and most of the rest of the world will rejoice, as fin whales have now not been hunted for the last two seasons due to bureaucracy in Japan, not to mention stores of unsold meat.

Another piece of good news is that Silicor Materials has told Icelandic port officials that it no longer intends to build the solar silicon plant in Grundartangi, which had been highly controversial and I had already predicted would not be built. They had had funding problems, amongst other things. The decision will please many people.

The United Silicon plant will remain closed for the next few months – if it ever reopens at all.

Iceland’s oldest aluminium smelter, currently owned by Rio Tinto Alcan and located just outside the Greater Capital Area, is up for sale. Apparently some entities have shown interest – my inkling is that Century Aluminium might be interested, as their proposed aluminium smelter close to the United Silicon smelter has never been completed. But Rio Tinto say that if they can’t find a suitable buyer, they’ll keep the plant.

The other big news, of course, is the fall of the Icelandic government and the election which will now take place on October 28. Apart from the stated reason for the election, which centred around the father of our current Prime Minister signing a letter of support for the clemency of a sex offender, it’s obvious that Bright Future and Vidreisn (Reform) had always been dissatisfied to some extent with working with the Independent Party in the Coalition, both in terms of working procedures and having to water down their politics. Everyone knew the situation was delicate from the start.

Fun and games.


Fluoride poisoning in horses confirmed

I wrote an article almost two years ago for Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution from accidents at aluminium plants in West and East Iceland and their effects on horses and sheep respectively. The horse owner, Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir, had been saying for almost 10 years that her horses were affected by the nearby Century aluminium plant but her concerns were dismissed by the smelter officials as well as by the Food and Veterinary Authority staff.
Nevertheless, a specialist group was set up to investigate the matter by the Ministry of the Interior of the previous Icelandic government and they have just come to the conclusion that fluoride pollution was probably to blame for the horses’ health problems. Seventeen horses have had to be destroyed because of health problems stemming from the pollution.
However, Century officials and the FVA still stand by their previous convictions and say that fluoride is not to blame.
Hmm… I think they won’t change their beliefs, no matter what the evidence.

One of the affected horses

One of the affected horses