For some, the carbon dioxide (CO2) shortages of 2018 in Europe and Mexico will live long in the memory. For the media and public at large, it was a ‘storm in a pint glass’. For many end-users it became a crisis in their operations.
For our industry, it was perhaps just a reminder of the supply chain vulnerabilities we have long known about.
There have been a number of shortages over the last decade or so, indeed I’ve been at gasworld for nearly 12 years now and I’ve been aware of 3-4 different CO2 shortages – but none had ever been at the scale that we saw in 2018.
And we had certainly never seen such interest in our industry either. What came with such interest, however, was an intense interest in the supply chain and its fragilities. Suddenly, everyone had a take on this dynamic and product availability. The shortages gave rise to questions over sourcing routes and why CO2 couldn’t simply be sucked out of the air, or even product purity and why it had to be food-grade CO2 that was used in the food and beverages business.
We are still far from seeing a glut of supply, in Europe at least; at gasworld we understood that as 2018 drew to a close, there were still concerns over the tight position the market found itself in. As I understand it today, little has changed in the last few months and we are still looking at a tight CO2 market in 2019.
At the same time, the demand for CO2 in its various forms continues to grow. All of the applications we discussed earlier continue to demand more and more CO2, while the dry ice market in particular is known to be in high growth mode the world over. And so, there is still much to be achieved in this business.
CO2 shortages are clearly not uncommon and those that I regularly speak to in the industry are constantly guarded about the next great crisis. Just as with the helium business, the CO2 markets in Europe seldom seem far from the next tipping point. And, just as in the case of helium, it’s clear that such a complex supply chain requires a Plan B.
Therein lies the important, simplest and most enduring lesson – the need for greater diversification in the supply chain, as I am discussing here at gasworld’s CO2 Summit in Innsbruck today.
There is some merit in the layman’s idea of sucking CO2 out of thin air; there’s great potential in the area of Direct Air Capture (DAC). Likewise, CO2 from biogas appears to show good potential for this industry – biogas streams can typically afford as much as 45% CO2 content that could be recovered and purified for reuse. And there are opportunities to be explored in CO2 from waste incineration, for example.
All of which leads to me question if are we now looking at a tipping point of another nature in the CO2 industry – one of business opportunity and future-proofing. Can we turn the supply chain challenges into opportunity, to create a new era for the CO2 business? Can we save the environment and the supply chain at the same time?
The great CO2 shortages of 2018 prove that there is a need for more recovery and recycling, that more investment is needed in this industry and, just perhaps, that we can take those market and societal triggers to usher in a new era for the global CO2 business.