If the carbon dioxide (CO2) shortage of the last fortnight has taught us nothing else, it has served up some welcome widespread awareness for the integral role of this invaluable gas in our everyday lives.

For decades, CO2 has rightly been much maligned for its negative environmental impact.

As the gas with by far the highest levels of emissions by volume, CO2 does, in absolute terms, have the greatest greenhouse effect. A naturally occurring chemical compound, CO2 is not only the product of respiration of all aerobic organisms, it is also produced as a result of industry, and the combustion of hydrocarbon-rich fossil fuels in particular. A by-product of so many fundamental processes, CO2 is a significant contributor to both global warming and ocean acidification. This often makes it something of a scapegoat in news headlines.

Yet few in the general public are aware that sulfur hexafluoride, for example, is almost 22,800 times more harmful to our environment than CO2. Or that nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more harmful.

For all of the negative press, fewer still had been aware of the vast array of applications that rely upon CO2 for its versatility and unique properties – from drinks carbonation and food chilling and freezing, to water treatment, dry ice blasting, manufacturing, and more besides.

Until now. Granted, it seems to have taken some degree of threat to our food and beverage supplies to achieve it, but at last there is some recognition for this invaluable product.

CO2 supply crisis hits Europe

Whether it’s under the umbrella of The Invisible Industry, Gases for Life or otherwise, CO2 is part of a number of industrial and specialty gases that play a fundamental role in almost all walks of life – but if often takes a shortage like this for us all to realise it. The crisis has taken this gas from ‘climate killer’ to industry all-rounder in the public domain.

A by-product in demand

As we have been writing for many years now at gasworld, CO2 has been rapidly moving from the villain of the piece to the cover star across a range of critical applications. CO2 has been a by-product in demand.

From drinks carbonation and food chilling and freezing, to water treatment, dry ice blasting, and manufacturing, it has become a leading protagonist in a number of fundamental applications that benefit us all.

Core applications for the commodity span all of its forms – gas, liquid and solid – with the food and beverage industries at the forefront, representing the single largest sector in the developed economies. Food processing applications are predominant among all other uses of product. This includes the many forms of liquid CO2 usage in cryogenic freezing, snow production, and various chilling applications.

As a gas, it is used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which is popular in food products such as meat, cheese, and even vegetables. Further, ‘rice’ dry ice sized pellets, are extremely popular in the poultry industry, for example. And as we have seen highlighted in the last fortnight, CO2 is widely used in abattoirs to stun pigs prior to the slaughter process.

CO2 shortage: Who’s affected so far?

Beyond food processing, the usual applications for CO2 in traditional markets include the welding industry, metallurgical uses, Ph reduction in water systems, agricultural uses, and much more, while new and expanded applications have been how the CO2 industry has enjoyed the greatest prosperity in recent years. In the long-term we can expect to see further development of applications such as advanced biofuels like algae, cellulosic technologies and more besides. Though still waiting for algae farms to reach full commercial lift-off, it’s interesting to see that these projects have increasingly strived to co-locate to a CO2 source.

All of which is really just a snapshot of the invisible industry that the CO2 business is alone – an industry that the world is now sitting up and listening to a little more.

What we may now need to be heard, are calls to action for supply chain diversification – capitalising on new and diverse CO2 source opportunities and growth in applications, and avoiding (where possible) future shortages.