The carbon dioxide shortage: What we learned

In our society, we take a lot for granted. As long as we have easy access to something, we don’t see it’s real value. Take water for example. Five litres costs less than 1 pence, despite there being widespread global and national shortages of potable water. As long as we can turn the tap on, and see water coming from out, we think there is nothing to be concerned about.

If water suddenly disappeared, that is when we would realise its true value, as we struggle to make food, wash, stay hydrated, and produce goods. This issue with water is a likely future scenario. However, it already happened with carbon dioxide this past summer.

The CO2 shortage

The UK suffered the worst from the 2018 CO2 shortage. Beer was rationed. There was no meat for barbeques. Ice cream was cancelled. The production of crumpets was suspended. The world almost came to an end all because of a shortage of carbon dioxide. It is used to stun animals before slaughter, keep meat and crumpets fresh in their packaging, add the fizz to fizzy drinks, and in the production of dry ice and therefore ice cream. It is more critical to our everyday lives than many people realise.

The cause

The shortage came about as a result of an unusually high number of fertiliser factories. They produce carbon dioxide as a by-product of ammonia fertilisers, but factories can’t turn a profit from CO2 alone. These factories close for maintenance periods each year. They last a few months but are during times when there is very little demand for fertiliser. This year, due to high prices of natural gas, fertiliser factories were in no hurry re-open.

Lessons learned

If the general public learned one thing from the shortage, it is the integral role that this specialist gas plays in everyday lives. It finally received some recognition for the vital role it plays. And perhaps, everyone can now see it’s true value.

What this shortage highlighted was a lack of a Plan B in a market that is entirely dependent on another. Carbon dioxide users are dependent on the fertiliser industry, which is ruled by further uncontrollable factors. In this instance, there needs to be a diversification of the supply chain so when one door closes another opens. If this shortage occurred this year, it could happen again next year unless something changes that supports fertiliser factories to stay open. There is a level of sourcing fragility.

Furthermore, it’s apparent that the CO2 market is not simple to control. People wanted those in the commercial gases sector to get control of the situation and carry out better planning, not realising that competition law required competing suppliers to think, plan, and act independently.

So, what should plan B be?

Hearing things like ‘can’t they just suck it out of the sky?’ were not uncommon during the crisis, and in fact, this would be great news for our problem with high carbon dioxide emissions. This already exists, but not on a scale that is beneficial to the planet or to mitigating a CO2 supply crisis, and it doesn’t come cheap.

Despite widespread perception, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is only around 500 parts-per-million – less than 0.05%. Extracting this is not as simple as it first may seem. So, after this crisis, it seems more reasonable than ever that focus should be put on carbon dioxide recovery technology, and other avenues for its production, creating a plan B and even a plan C for CO2 consumers.

Higgins will assist you with the specialist gas installation of your CO2 and other specialist gases. We cover laboratories, manufacturing, education, and other sectors to make sure you’re always using the best equipment and staying safe. Get in touch today on 01625 613 308  to talk to one of our experts.