Why is CO2 so crucial and what is behind current supply problems?

Food industry feeling the pressure after spiralling energy costs lead to the suspension of operations at fertiliser plants.

Why is CO2 so crucial and what is behind current supply problems? iStock

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, has wide-ranging uses in the UK, from food production to hospital operations.

This Q&A takes a look at what is causing the disruption to CO2 supply and why restarting production is crucial.

– What is the problem with CO2?

CO2 is used across numerous industries, from stunning animals for slaughter, extending the shelf life of food, aiding in surgical operations and cooling nuclear power plants.

A shortage has developed after production was paused at two fertiliser factories in northern England last week, which supply 60% of Britain’s CO2. US firm CF Industries, which owns the factories, blamed rising gas prices for making its operations unviable.

– Can we get CO2 from somewhere else?

Approximately 20% of the UK’s carbon dioxide is imported, mostly from plants in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. However, soaring energy prices are also having an impact on European firms.

A further 20% is produced by other plants in the UK.

– What is CO2 used in?

Its uses are many and varied and largely essential.

CO2 is used in the UK supply of pork and chicken. While sheep and cattle are still mostly killed using a captive-bolt stun pistol, pigs and poultry are now more often stunned with high concentrations of CO2, resulting in gradual loss of consciousness before they go to slaughter.

It is also widely used in the packaging of fresh meats, fresh produce such as salad and baked goods, where CO2 prevents bacteria forming and extends the shelf life. In baked goods, such as bread and pastries, and some cheeses, it is used at concentrations of up to 100% to deter mould.

CO2 is widely used in fizzy drinks and beer and is also vital to cooling systems used to refrigerate products. It is also used to create dry ice, which can be used to keep food fresh for storage and transport.

It is also used in the UK in industrial glasshouses to encourage strong growth and can be used to purify drinking water.

– What does the NHS need it for?

CO2 is commonly used by surgeons to stabilise body cavities during operations and provide better visibility, and to freeze off warts and moles.

It is also used to keep medical supplies at a stabilised temperature during transport.

– Are there any alternatives to CO2?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently researching alternative methods of stunning animals after a previous CO2 shortage in 2018 accelerated concerns about potential supply chain issues.

Recent studies have suggested that low atmosphere pressure stunning (LAPS) could provide an alternative solution.

Brewers, who were particularly affected when the 2018 shortage coincided with the football World Cup, have since invested in new technology which allows them to capture CO2 produced during the fermentation process, store it, and then reuse it to carbonate beer.

There are also ongoing investigations into storing carbon dioxide captured from power plant emissions beneath the North Sea.

– What is being done to fix the problem and will it be enough?

The UK Government announced it had struck a deal with CF Industries on Tuesday to provide financial support to restart the plant. Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government would support CF “just for a few weeks” at a cost of “possibly tens of millions” of pounds.

Ian Wright, chief executive of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the deal and said product shortages would not be as bad as previously feared if production can restart at “appropriate scale” before the end of the week.

He added: “When we are certain that the immediate supply issues are resolved, we should then work with Government to build resilience into the production of CO2 to protect our food supply chain.”

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