Carbon dioxide shortage threatens beer and food manufacturing

Dive Brief:

  • A carbon dioxide shortage is making operations difficult and more expensive for a range of food companies, especially breweries and those needing dry ice to preserve meat in transit, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Supply of the gas has been constrained by high demand and contamination of a key natural source, according to information from the Brewers Association reported by The Washington Post. Maintenance shutdowns at industrial facilities that make carbon dioxide are scheduled for September and October, Rich Gottwald, CEO of the Compressed Gas Association, told The Wall Street Journal, so there are more shortages on the horizon.
  • Carbon dioxide is a necessary ingredient to make beer palatable, and the shortage has been hitting breweries hard. The gas is naturally created in the fermentation process, but much of that has to be vented out of the tank because of volatile aromas.

Dive Insight:

Gottwald from the Compressed Gas Association told The Wall Street Journal that about 70% of the carbon dioxide produced in the U.S. is used by the food and beverage industry. In addition to giving beer its trademark fizz and head, carbon dioxide can rapidly chill food that will be frozen, be made into dry ice and help stun animals before slaughter.

And while this shortage can be chalked up to supply chain issues — which have roiled different sectors of the food industry as commodities became scarcer, costs skyrocketed and demand continued to rise — it’s not clear how quickly it may pass.

Gasworld, a publication that monitors the industrial gas production industry, reported that the shortage may have originated earlier this year as oil prices skyrocketed. The Jackson Dome carbon dioxide well in Mississippi — known as a plentiful natural source — likely first saw contamination as the company drilled additional wells to use the gas for enhanced oil recovery. The resulting contamination creates a gas that is too impure for beverages.

Carbon dioxide is also a byproduct of ethanol and ammonia production. And while the gas can often be obtained from the renewable fuel and fertilizer industries, depending on them for supply also can lead to shortages. In the case of ammonia, plants tend to plan maintenance in the early fall, to work around the growing season. According to Gasworld, there is usually a carbon dioxide shortage of sorts at this time of year, but it’s exacerbated by the loss of natural sources.

A slowdown in ethanol production roiled the carbon dioxide supply in 2020. As fewer Americans drove in the early days of the pandemic, many ethanol plants idled or cut production. In April 2020, Gottwald told Forbes he expected carbon dioxide production to decline as much as 70% in a month. The shortage soon subsided, allowing the food industry to continue using the gas at its earlier pace. 

How the industry will come through this is yet to be seen. Brad Dunn, executive vice president of industrial gas supplier CK Supply pointed out at an industry conference in April that U.S. carbon dioxide demand was equivalent to supply — about 10.3 million tonnes. But forecasts show that demand will grow 0.5% to 2% annually in the coming years, meaning 1,600 tonnes of additional daily supply will eventually be needed.

While natural sources and industrial byproducts may end up falling short in terms of supply (and imports may not be relied on — Europe is also seeing carbon dioxide shortages), other sources of the gas and the function it provides may be needed. The U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry suggested that nitrogen could be instead used for chilling, preservation and animal stunning.

In the long term, sophisticated carbon dioxide recapturing systems could capture the gas in the atmosphere and filter out impurities, the Royal Society of Chemistry says. Good Beer Hunting’s Sightlines reported that these systems are extremely expensive, take a lot of manpower to run and, when used in breweries, haven’t been able to produce all of the gas that is needed. However, since the trade journal reported some breweries are shutting plants and receiving quotes of $1.20 for a pound of carbon dioxide that once cost 11 cents, this solution may turn out to be a cost effective one.