By Karen Graham
A carbon dioxide (CO2) shortage in Europe and now, Mexico, has threatened to halt the production of beer, carbonated drinks, and many other products in the supply chain. With rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere – what’s going on?
It is amazing what we take for granted today. In the United Kingdom, the past couple of weeks have seen beer being rationed and a suspension of crumpet production, not to mention a shortage of dry ice.
And the problem is not confined to the UK, either. Norway’s capital Oslo is introducing a water ban, while Coca-Cola said it had “temporarily paused” some of its production lines for short periods and major Scottish abattoir Quality Pork Limited has suspended operations.
Mexico is the latest country to be affected by a CO2 shortage, according to GasWorld. And the problem has been described as “significant”
All these problems are related
All these different businesses, from brewers to meat processing plants where CO2 is used to slaughter animals, to Oslo’s water purification process that requires the use of carbon dioxide gas – they are all intertwined. And to further complicate things, it all boils down to Ammonia fertilizer.
And it does seem pretty strange, especially with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rising – to think Europe has a shortage of CO2. Actually, this is the worst CO2-supply system crisis seen in at least 22 years. So how did this crisis come about?
First, it is not profitable for a factory to make pure CO2 alone. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of other chemicals, like ammonia fertilizer. To get a bit technical – To manufacture ammonia, the first step involves splitting a hydrocarbon molecule like natural gas – in other words – separating the “hydro” from the “carbon.”
The carbon gets turned into CO2, which is captured, purified and liquefied to be used in all kinds of processes, like the ones already mentioned, but also in packaged salad greens and coffee. The CO2 is also used in the petroleum industry for “enhanced oil recovery” in oil wells.
As for ammonia plants -The production schedule is dependent on the planting seasons. And because farmers don’t apply fertilizer in the summer, the ammonia plants typically shut down for maintenance during the months of April, May, and June.
We can now add that because natural gas prices have risen, forcing a rise in production costs, the price of ammonia has remained static. So many ammonia plants are in no big hurry to reopen.
Let’s add one more issue to the CO2 problem. The Northern Hemisphere has been experiencing an extreme heatwave the past few weeks, and even at the World Cup, there have been shortages of beer and soft drinks. “You’ve got a real perfect storm of supply-chain conditions,” says Rob Cockerill, the global managing editor of Gasworld.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide extraction
With global atmospheric CO2 levels standing at 410 ppm, the highest it has been in about one million years, surprisingly, it only makes up about 0.041 percent of the air we breathe or 410 parts per million. “The problem with extracting CO2 in the air is there’s not much there,” says Richard Sachleben, a retired chemist and member of the American Chemical Society, according to The Atlantic. “It’s a tiny, tiny amount.”
Chemists Peter Styring and Katy Armstrong, University of Sheffield, explained further: “We can capture CO2 using what’s known as a sorbent material that either physically interacts or bonds with the gas at a molecular level. To capture a viable amount of CO2 from the air, we would need to compress huge amounts in order to pass it through the sorbent, something that would require a lot of energy.”
Dr. Simon Dawson, a food sciences expert and senior lecturer at Cardiff University, told Express.co.uk the CO2 shortage is particularly dire for the food industry – simply because of CO2’s unique properties.”
“What carbon dioxide does is it acts as an anti-microbial agent, so it reduces the potential for bacteria to grow. From doing that you get an extended shelf life and product.” For example, a bag of salad mix contains about 15 percent CO2, five percent nitrogen, and 80 percent oxygen.
This is done to prevent the formation of ethylene gas, a compound taken up by vegetables and fruits – making them age quickly. “So by reducing the aging process, you are extending the shelf life of the salad vegetables themselves.”
The same methodology is also used in processing and packaging cooked and sliced meats, where about 25 percent CO2 is added to the package, getting rid of as much oxygen as possible and the rest being nitrogen. “You want to try and reduce the amount of oxygen in there because it prevents the bacteria from growing.”
As you can see, the supply chain for carbon dioxide touches many different industries yet is intertwined by the demands for ammonia. As long as farmers continue to use fertilizers, we will have a use for the CO2, a by-product of ammonia production. Sort of strange, no?
This article appeared on the Digital Journal website at http://www.digitaljournal.com/tech-and-science/science/uk-and-now-mexico-facing-shortage-of-carbon-dioxide/article/526581