Flat beer could be another byproduct of the energy crisis

CO2 shortages caused by high energy prices are slamming the food and beverage industry. Breweries are taking some of the biggest hits.

While atmospheric CO2 levels keep increasing, some industries aren’t getting enough of the gas.

The cost of industrial CO2 has been rising since the summer. These price surges have created problems for breweries, which need the gas to carbonate beer, along with suppliers across the food and beverage industry that need the gas for cooling and preservation purposes. 

“The situation is worrying. Many companies only get part of the ordered quantity or nothing at all and have no planning security,” said Stefanie Sabet, managing director of the Federal Association of the German Food Industry in a statement in September.

Why is there a shortage?

Carbon dioxide supply shortages are not uncommon. They hit Europe in the summer of 2018 due to a drop in industrial fertilizer production, for example, and last summer due to a rise in wholesale gas prices. 

Most of the carbon dioxide on the market is a byproduct of fertilizer production, notably ammonia. But this year’s spiking energy prices have caused a “shutdown of fertilizer factories or cuts in production,” Simon Spillane, a spokesperson for The Brewers of Europe, told DW. The Brussels-based organization represents more than 10,000 breweries across Europe.

In short, higher energy prices mean reduced fertilizer production, which means less carbon dioxide.

According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price for industrial CO2 in September 2022 was 25% higher than in the previous year. Around 70% of ammonia production has stopped since August, according to Fertilizers Europe, the European association of fertilizer manufacturers.

Why is CO2 important?

Carbon dioxide is a gas that doesn’t smell, has no color and does not burn. Living animals — like you and me — create it naturally through the process of respiration, and plants use it to produce sugars during photosynthesis. It is also artificially generated through the burning of fossil fuels.

You can easily make CO2 at home — just mix a spoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and lemon juice (citric acid) or vinegar (acetic acid) in a cup. The reaction converts bicarbonate into CO2.

When it comes to the food industry, CO2 is best known for its capacity to add that nice fizz to drinks like mineral water, sodas or beer. Breweries also need carbon dioxide to pre-charge tanks, bottles and kegs so that the beer does not come into contact with air during filling and does not foam during bottling. It also helps to preserve beers — “if not used, the product can have a very short shelf life,” Spillane said.

CO2 is also used to decaffeinate coffee, for food packaging and as a refrigerant. Liquid and solid “dry ice” CO2 is used for quick freezing and keeping food refrigerated during transport.

The gas is also used to promote the growth of plants in greenhouses and in the meat industry for stunning animals in efforts to humanely slaughter them. Very high concentrations of CO2 can take the place of oxygen in the air and quickly cause asphyxiation.

Why not use CO2 from the atmosphere?

It may sound like an obvious “kill two birds with one stone” situation. But carbon capture from the air — a process called direct air capture — is still too expensive to present itself as a tenable option for most companies. 

Some corporations, like the Swiss company Climeworks AG, have developed methods to capture CO2 from the air and pump it deep underground, where it can be permanently stored. But this captured gas is meant to mitigate climate change and is not available for industrial use.

So, enough to damage the climate but, so far, too scarce to be taken from the air without being very expensive. Although research keeps advancing in this area, direct air capture technology is “still in its infancy,” according to Dawid Hanak, a professor of energy and process engineering at Cranfield University in the UK. 

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