Second from the coronavirus, CO2 seems to be the hot topic dominating the US headlines at present, with floods of publications reporting suggestions of a CO2 shortage.

Speculation of such a shortage started last month with the Compressed Gas Association (CGA) submitting a letter to US Vice-President Mike Pence expressing concerns the economic hit caused by the pandemic could affect both the demand and production of CO2.

Coronavirus: CGA led coalition warns risk of CO2 shortage

The letter, which was signed by members of the CGA along with multiple food and beverage manufacturers, suggested that many manufacturers had paused production at CO2 plants due to diminished demand leading to limited access for industrial gas suppliers.

As highlighted in the letter, CO2 is used widely in the food and beverage markets including in the processing, packaging, preservation, and shipping. In addition to the food and beverage industry, CO2 is also used in various aspects of the healthcare segment which now more than ever is playing a critical role in society.

One company requesting immediate assistance for CO2 through the letter was CGA association member and manufacturer of gas detection and monitoring devices, CO2Meter, who agreed to talk to gasworld more about the shortage.

“US customers are seeing the effects of the supply shortage already. Some distributors are trucking in loads from the Midwest and East coast just to meet minimal demand,” said Joshua Pringle, Vice-President on Business Development at CO2Meter.

“With so many refineries shut down supply is an issue and I think it’s only going to get worse over the next 60 days.”

“The flip side is that demand will begin to rise as states unshutter, and businesses start to open. The demand will outpace the supply, especially as consumers continue to work from home. Driving less means depressed gas prices and petroleum surpluses,” he continued. 

“The effects are far more vast and greater than I think the average American can comprehend.”

What the suppliers are saying

Whilst many seem to be sharing their struggles with the shortage during the pandemic, Messer Americas has helped to calm the nerves of many by bringing a California-based CO2 plant on stream earlier this month.

Messer brings California CO2 plant on stream amid reports of CO2 shortage in the US

The plant, located in Keyes, has the capability to produce up to 450 tonnes of CO2 per day, which can be used to help those in the food and beverage industry, along with the electronics industry, and will therefore support those concerned about such a shortage. 

Another company who is finding ways to cope with the reported shortage is the Reliant Group, a group of multiple companies that supply carbon dioxide in different forms and fashions.

Speaking to gasworld about the CO2 shortage, Richard York, Product Sourcing Manager at Reliant Gases, explained, “Reliant is fortunate that we have multiple geologic sources to supply from and we have restarted an idled plant to increase system capacity.” 

“Currently we do not expect a CO2 shortage within our system as we have adequate supply. A regional shortage would increase distribution costs, but with our current source type mix, Reliant will be able to reliably supply our customers.” 

“On the consumer level, the protein and bottling plants are experiencing many challenges within their entire operational and supply chain (not just CO2) so I expect to see reduced production from larger plants and tighter food supplies in the coming months.”

The role of CO2 in the food and beverage industry

Factoring in the societal changes the coronavirus has brought to the states, York told gasworld that he believes that industry won’t experience the increased CO2 consumption that is expected in the typical summer months which will help with the tight supply.

Much like CO2Meter, Reliant also commented on what may happen to the CO2 supply as US states start to come out of lockdown.

“The reopening of the economy will increase the demand for petroleum and allow two of the major raw CO2 sources (refineries and ethanol plants) to begin operating at increased rates,” York explained.

“The balance of fuel consumption and hence the reclamation of CO2 will determine if these sources are available to support the CO2 supply chain. If the reopening of the economy does not go as expected and those sources are not available, there will continue to be shortages.”

“As it currently stands, I do believe that the industry has survived the worst of the outages, but we are still in for a tight supply in 2020 and potentially early 2021.”

How to address such shortage

Whilst some aren’t feeling the effects of a CO2 shortage, others that are worried or are already facing some setbacks will need to consider alternative methods to address the shortage.

In order to help those suffering, Messer Americas has offered three methods which have the ability to help companies overcome their CO2 struggles: 

1. Leveraging the qualities of nitrogen: According to the industrial gas company, in many cases nitrogen and CO2 can be used interchangeably for cryogenic freezing and chilling. Therefore, converting a current CO2 temperature control process to nitrogen may not be difficult.

Companies that leverage sophisticated and unique technologies – including Messer technologies that offer the ability to use both as a solution – can enable effective use of nitrogen in place of CO2 for some processes.

2. Increasing on site CO2 storage capacity: Having additional CO2 storage on site makes producers more resilient to short-term supply disruptions.

3. Evaluating their existing freezing and chilling systems: According to Messer, companies may have opportunities to set up virtual plant audits and see how they could run more efficiently, remove temperature control bottlenecks whilst reducing costs and improve yield in many cases.