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

CO2 supplies have been disrupted by soaring gas prices and many industries are struggling with the fallout.

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

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

Here, the PA news agency 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.

Surgeons in theatre
CO2 is commonly used by surgeons during operations (PA)

– 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.

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.

Pigs and poultry sent to slaughter are often stunned with high concentrations of CO2 (PA)
Price of gas per therm
(PA Graphics)

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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