SOUTHEASTERN NC – Businesses from bars to restaurants to poultry plants are experiencing the early stages of carbon dioxide shortages, another exposure to a supply chain problem caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, Denbury, a major producer of carbon dioxide, discovered gas contamination at its Jackson Dome plant in Mississippi. On the other hand, many suppliers unable to filter pollutants in-house were left with products they could not distribute, along with a slowdown in production.
One business affected is Roberts Oxygen, a Raleigh-based company whose spokesman said he could not disclose the names of its suppliers. A source at Roberts Oxygen told PCD of the three companies it receives carbon dioxide from, one is contaminated and another has been shut down for routine maintenance, leaving Roberts’ operations at 25% of normal.
The lack of carbon dioxide will probably have the biggest impacts on the beverage industry. Gas requires a higher level of purity for liquid consumption, which means greater efforts to decontaminate and serves as the backbone for breweries.
Roberts distributes CO2 to Wilmington’s Front Street and Flying Machine Brewing Company. The FSB’s director of brewing, Christopher McGarvey, said a dramatic drop in the supply of carbon dioxide would be a “catastrophic failure”.
“There is no way to drastically reduce CO2; it’s essential to brewing,” McGarvey said.
Front Street, which has four carbon dioxide tanks in its alley, has yet to see a break in its fills, which McGarvey estimated happens every six weeks, but could face lower supply in the future .
“It’s more like seeing which way a hurricane is going to go,” McGarvey said.
Carbon dioxide is used in the fermentation process of beer and in its transport from barrel to bar. McGarvey explained after the beer is matured, the carbon dioxide is used to “purge” the air tanks, the gas is continuously pumped into the keg for at least an hour.
The CO2 is then used to move the liquid to the bar, where it meets more CO2 at the tap for a fresh taste. For restaurants that do not brew beer in house, portable CO2 cylinders will suffice. But breweries like Front Street must rely on truck deliveries — the bigger the operation, the more gas it needs.
Carbon dioxide is used in industries other than the beverage business, although other local businesses don’t seem likely to take such a hit.
Water parks and swimming pools can use CO2 instead of acidic mixtures to manage the pH balance of the water. It can also endanger sprinklers during the height of summer. Although, spokespeople for the city and county said PCD carbon dioxide is not used in any of its aquatic recreation.
The gas in its solid form, otherwise known as dry ice, is used in places like research and pharmaceutical laboratories, as well as in food transportation.
The poultry industry — already facing a national shortage caused by winter storms in the Persian Gulf and an outbreak of bird flu in the spring — could see some impacts on how it transports and packages products without enough dry ice.
Dave Witter is manager of corporate communications and sustainability at House of Raeford Farms, a family-operated poultry facility in Rose Hill, located 45 miles from Wilmington. It operates 454 farms throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia along with processing facilities throughout the Southeast.
He said the company has experienced intermittent CO2 shortages, but this has not affected its transport schedule.
“A CO2 shortage would not create a supply problem for our customers,” Witter said. “We’ll just pack the product on wet ice until the CO2 deficiency subsides.”
The opposite is true for the research labs at UNCW. The university’s chemistry and biochemistry department chair, Jeremy Morgan, said dry ice is a necessity most days.
It has a temperature of -78 degrees Celsius, which generates a “cold bath” when mixed with some organic solvents. A regular ice bath, which doesn’t get below 0 degrees Celsius, can sometimes be used instead, Morgan explained.
“We use these baths to control the temperature of reactions carried out in the laboratory,” he said. “Not all projects require a -78 bath, but we also perform solvent transfer daily when a cold bath is required.”
Morgan added that alternatives such as liquid nitrogen would be more difficult to control and -78 Celsius coolers would be too expensive to purchase.
So far, UNCW has had no problem getting the dry ice they order from Airgas.
As for the beverage industry, McGarvey said he had been told that Roberts Oxygen would begin to ration its carbon dioxide supply. Front Street has purchased a few more portable canisters, but has also begun preparing to save as much gas as possible by finding and fixing little nooks and crannies where gas can escape.
If a large-scale drop in carbon dioxide were to occur, he said Front Street would stop brewing new beer and use the limited carbon dioxide to sell open kegs until they run out. After that, the business will have to rely on food and beverage sales.
McGarvey added that he also purchased a rotary valve, which controls the pressure inside the barrels to allow for natural carbonation. However, this would not provide a way to move the beer from the keg to the bar.
Front Street may have to use the British way of doing things, McGarvey said, which involves a keg, a wish list item for it and a hand crank to transport the beer.
“We’re basically talking about medieval technology,” McGarvey said.
However, many businesses would not be able to automatically switch to that method, and a delicious taste would be different, putting customers’ tastes at risk.
Some larger breweries have begun to recycle the carbon dioxide they emit during the fermentation process, but this option will most likely remain out of reach for smaller businesses for years to come.
According to McGarvey, this is the first time in his 12 years of production that he has been threatened with a CO2 shortage. He attributed this to the behind-the-scenes work of suppliers to protect consumers from the regional problem.
Carbon dioxide production relies on production from ammonia production, which is seasonal. Its off-season occurs during the summer, when the food industry sees the most business, causing many factories to schedule maintenance during the summer months, like the one serving Roberts Oxygen.
From McGarvey’s perspective, the shortage highlights the problems with that model, along with the global supply chain in general, built on a just-in-time model. This mode of production forces production to meet demand, rather than pre-empting need or creating surplus.
“Industry after industry, the prevailing approach is short-sighted and unsustainable, and we are all at its mercy,” McGarvey said.
Contact reporter Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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