Tightening in supply or shortages of supply of carbon dioxide (CO2) have blighted some companies this year and impacted customers in the food and beverage industry.

Source: MacCarb

CO2 is used widely in the food and beverage industry as a refrigerant and is also used in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) to improve shelf life and in carbonating drinks. Dry ice (solid CO2) has increasingly been used to keep food frozen during home delivery, a trend that has boomed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Demand for CO2 has risen, thanks partly to a growing trend for food home delivery, while plant shutdowns have impacted supply.

As a result, David Burdick, Division Manager at Reliant Gases, which has its own sources, plants and transportation network, says CO2 supply was tight over the summer months.

“Reliant has experienced tight supplies in some of our markets,” Burdick told gasworld in November.  

“This has been due to maintenance at source plants that was put off from 2020, economic conditions for some of the source plants’ end product and general summertime CO2 issues.  They have all contributed and the combination made it a tight summer. Customer CO2 and dry ice demand has also increased as new CO2 applications are coming online and consumer buying habits have changed.”

Reliant, with headquarters in Texas, serves customers throughout the US and Mexico. Burdick says Reliant has shipped from its Guymon, Oklahoma plant to every part of the country and has also supplied the west coast from its Brandon, Mississippi plant.

“We’ve seen the most tightening of supply on both the west and east coast, all areas seem to be affected, but these were the most impacted,” Burdick said.

“Reliant Gases & Reliant Dry Ice has relied heavily on our geologic source plants to supply product to the various area via rail, truck and even companies hiring their own trucks to pick up.”

MacCARB, a full service beverage gas distributor in the Midwest, provides high pressure cylinders for smaller end users, microbulk (for restaurant/brewery/industrial sectors) and bulk (for large manufacturing and bottlers). In the last 18 months MacCARB has added six new semi trailers to its fleet, eight new rail cars and the development of its ‘Go Team’ Division that services customers all across the US.

Bob McCarthy, Distribution Manager at MacCARB, says the shortage have ranged from loss of sources in certain regions, to turnarounds, to driver shortages.

“The CO2 supply chain has been and continues to be very tight, ever since the start of the pandemic,” McCarthy told gasworld in November.

“Pre-Covid, on average one or two regions throughout the US would be impacted for short durations – around 2-4 weeks at most – due to turnarounds or unexpected equipment failures a year. Post-Covid, there seems to always be one or multiple regions impacted throughout the US every month. The tight supply has amplified the ripple effects that are being seen across the board.

“Capacity has been very slim in most regions, so when disruptions occur, surrounding sources don’t always have the extra capacity to support as it has been the case before.”

But MacCARB has been able to overcome the challenges in supply, and is traveling thousands of miles to deliver product.

“We understand the dynamics of the CO2 industry and the reaction time needed to respond to shortages in the CO2 supply chain that come with little or no notice,” McCarthy said.

“Having the correct mixture of drivers and assets ready to go has allowed us to put more consistency in an inconsistent market.

“The development of the ‘Go Team Division’ was created out of necessity. We have customers all over the US who call us looking for support when their supply is interrupted. It’s common for us to truck a load of CO2 2000-2500 miles to a customer when their supply is allocated. We continue to reinforce our commitment of exceptional service by being the company that finds a way to provide CO2. Providing CO2 during shortages or peak demand periods have allowed us to create relationships and expand our business.”

Uncertainties

Uncertainties over CO2 supply is causing some food customers to move to nitrogen, according to McCarthy.

“Nitrogen has started to become more attractive in the meat industry, as a replacement for CO2,” McCarthy said.

“Companies are looking to use Nitrogen as an alternative for their processes where CO2 is currently used. Initial upfront costs have always been a hindrance when exploring nitrogen as an alternative but more and more customers are looking at it to help secure their supply chain.”

Ned Lane, President of Cee Kay Supply, an independent supplier of compressed gases, welding and cutting equipment, and dry ice that serves Missouri and Illinois, says the situation has improved but it has been a challenging year.

“This has been a challenging year for customers, distributors, and suppliers,” Lane told gasworld in November.

“We are all three as it relates to CO2. At one point our plant inventories (ArchView Carbonic) were very low and we were on Force Majeure/Allocation from three of our suppliers. Customers are getting more cautious of committing all of their volume to one supplier due to the ongoing allocations, surcharges and continued outages.”

Lane said most of the outages were caused by feedstock issues, but Cee Kay has overcome challenges. While the current situation is better than it was, Lane expects more supply bumps along the road.

“Working extra hours and driving extra miles allowed us to not miss a delivery commitment to any of our dry ice or CO2 customers,” Lane said.

“Currently the market is flush with CO2 and inventory levels have rebounded, which is typical for this time of year. Feedstock plants (Ethanol/Ammonia/Refineries) don’t typically do plant maintenance turn arounds in the winter months and CO2 demand is less this time of the year. We can only assume that next summer will bring back similar challenges to supply. No major new volume of production is scheduled to impact supply and demand for CO2 continues to grow.”

In the Northeast, Tim Koerner, Owner of American Carbonation, a bulk CO2 distributor, the problems stem from the initial onset of the pandemic and are still being felt.  

“Unfortunately it’s been status quo since beginning of September,” Tim Koerner told gasworld shortly before the rush for dry ice at Halloween.

“We still have an allocation out to our customers, we are getting by but between the rail service and a lot of plants going up and down over the past few months it has just been really tough for supply for everyone. We talk to the majors and they have told us that western Canada has had a lot of issues with supply for a while so a lot of stuff in eastern Canada was getting shipped out to western Canada so that’s made supply even shorter in the eastern side of Canada, and a lot of the eastern product of Canada comes down into the northeast of the US. We heard western Canada was tough, west coast of US has been a really tough market we have heard. People have not been able to get product left and right. In the last few weeks the Mid Atlantic has been really hit with the shortage because the Hopewell, Virginia, feedstock went down and that’s a 1200 ton per day production facility for the three major plants down there, so there are a lot of customers running out of product from Virginia, through Pennsylvania, because we get a lot of calls from customers down there looking for product.”

CO2 expert Sam Rushing, President of Advanced Cryogenics, Ltd, says CO2 supply concerns were easing going into November with the startup at Hopewell.

“The Mid-Atlantic is not suffering so much from supply shortages, since the ammonia plants have returned to operating status in Hopewell, Virginia – which are key to the regional supply,” Rushing told gasworld.

“The loss of this source was a significant hardship in the region for a number of weeks, during a significant period of product demand. In the Northeast, some of this supply has been a significant hardship over the last few months, in part due to the CO2 source in St Johns, NB, Canada was unable to deliver raw feedstock to the CO2 plant; however, I understand this should be remedied soon. Annual turnarounds should ease in the primarily Midwestern ethanol sector, leading to more product from ethanol sources; this sector accounts for about 45% of the US merchant supply.”

Sam Fatoohi, of California-based bulk telemetry manufacturer Pulsa, says businesses have turned to them for solutions in overcoming challenges with CO2 supply.

“We have heard that many distributors have struggled to get CO2 to meet their end customer demand,” Fatoohi said in November. “The CO2 supply issues appear to be both demand and supply driven. There are many applications with increasing demand for CO2 - breweries, cannabis, water treatment, swimming pools - and the supply has been diminished due to shutdowns of facilities that produce CO2 as a byproduct. This has actually accelerated the move to adopt Pulsa. After distributors deploy our technology, they’re able to reduce delivery frequency by 30-60%, which means that their inventory can last longer by avoiding top offs and fill loss from extra stops.”

As for the current situation and the future, Fatoohi added, “It appears that folks who need it can get it. But we previously lived in world were CO2 was always cheap and abundant, and we’re likely to see at a minimum more conservation of CO2 through the supply chain.”