Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The irony! - a shortage of carbon dioxide

In a world that is seemingly awash in carbon dioxide (CO2), and is desperately trying to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by modern human life, it is ironic in the extreme to read that the UK is staring down a major shortage of CO2  to the extent that a big potential hit to the economy is envisaged.

I had no idea, but apparently CO2 is used in a variety of industrial and commercial activities, including extending the shelf life of packaged fruit and veg and meat, cooling nuclear power plants, stabilizing body cavities during surgical operations, purifying drinking water, freezing off warts and moles, stunning livestock before slaughter, producing dry ice for transportation of fresh produce and for visual effects, and of course putting the fizz into fizzy drinks.

The UK mainly produces this industrial CO2 as a by-product of the manufacture of ammonia, alcohol and (mainly) fertilizers. Specifically, 60% of its total production comes from just two fertilizer plants in northern England owned by a US company, CF Industries, that now wants to shut down the plants. This is a prime example of the UK having too many eggs in one basket.

The biggest single input cost in CO2 production is natural gas, and surging natural gas prices have already forced some fertilizer plants to close down, leading to a shortage of CO2. The UK government has apparently struck a temporary deal with CF Industries to stay open, despite the natural gas prices, but this is only a temporary fix. Prices of CO2 are predicted to rise by up to 400%, and all of the products that rely on it, from produce to meat to nuclear power, will feel the pinch accordingly.

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