SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Businesses from bars to restaurants to poultry plants are experiencing the early stages of a carbon dioxide shortage, another exposure of a supply chain issue sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, Denbury, a major carbon dioxide producer, discovered gas contamination at its Jackson Dome plant in Mississippi. In turn, many suppliers that cannot filter contaminants in-house were left with products they couldn’t distribute, along with a holdup in production.
One impacted business is Roberts Oxygen, a Raleigh-based company, whose spokesperson said it could not divulge the names of its suppliers. A source from Roberts Oxygen told PCD out of the three companies it receives carbon dioxide from, one is contaminated and another is shut down for routine maintenance, leaving Roberts’ operations at 25% of normal quantity.
A carbon dioxide shortage will perhaps have the largest impacts on the beverage industry. The gas requires a higher purity level for liquid consumption, meaning larger efforts to decontaminate, and it serves as the backbone to breweries.
Roberts distributes CO2 to Wilmington’s Front Street Brewery and Flying Machine Brewing Company. FSB brewmaster Christopher McGarvey said a dramatic drop-off in carbon dioxide supply would be “catastrophic failure.”
“There isn’t a way to drastically cut back on CO2; it’s fundamental to brewing beer,” McGarvey said.
Front Street, which has four carbon dioxide tanks in its alley, has yet to see an interruption in its fill-ups, which McGarvey estimated happens every six weeks, but could face lower supply in the future.
“It’s more like watching whichever direction a hurricane is going to go,” McGarvey said.
Carbon dioxide is used in the fermentation process of beer and in its transportation from kegs to the bar. McGarvey explained once the beer is brewed, carbon dioxide is used to “purge” the tanks of air, the gas pouring uninterrupted into the kegs for at least an hour.
Then CO2 is used to move the liquid to the bar, where it meets more CO2 at the tap for a crisp taste. For restaurants that don’t produce beer in house, portable CO2 canisters 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 other industries besides the beverage business, though other local businesses do not seem prone to take as big of a hit.
Water parks and pools may use CO2 instead of acidic mixes to manage the water’s pH balance. It can also put splash pads at risk during the height of summer. Although, spokespeople for the city and county told PCD carbon dioxide is not used in any of its water recreation.
The gas in its solid form, otherwise known as dry ice, is used in places like research and pharmaceutical labs, as well as food transportation.
The poultry industry — already facing a national shortage caused by winter storms in the Gulf and an avian influenza outbreak in spring — could see some impacts to how it ships and packages products without enough dry ice.
Dave Witter is the 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 across North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia along with processing facilities across the southeast.
He said the company has experienced intermittent shortages of CO2, but it has not impacted its shipping schedule.
“A CO2 shortage would not create a supply issue for our customers,” Witter said. “We would simply pack the product in wet ice until the shortage of CO2 subsides.”
The opposite is true for research labs at UNCW. Chair of the university’s chemistry and biochemistry department 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 certain organic solvents. A regular ice bath, which does not reach below 0 degrees Celsisus, can sometimes be used instead, Morgan explained.
“We use these baths to control the temperature of reactions conducted in the laboratory,” he said. “Not all projects require a -78 bath, but we also perform solvent transfer every day where a cold bath is required.”
Morgan added alternatives like liquid nitrogen would be harder to control and -78 Celsius chillers would be too expensive to purchase.
As of yet, UNCW has not had a problem obtaining dry ice, which they order from Airgas.
As for the beverage industry, McGarvey said he was told Roberts Oxygen would start rationing carbon dioxide supply. Front Street has purchased a few more portable canisters, but also started preparing to conserve as much gas as possible by locating and patching small nooks and crannies where gas might escape.
If a large-scale decrease in carbon dioxide were to happen, he said Front Street would stop producing new beer and use the limited carbon dioxide to sell open kegs until they ran out. After that, the business would have to rely on food and liquor sales.
McGarvey added he has also purchased a spunding valve, which controls the pressure inside kegs to allow for natural carbonation. However, that wouldn’t provide a way to move the beer from its barrel to the bar.
Front Street may have to resort to the British way of doing things, McGarvey said, which involves a cask, a wishlist item for him, and a hand-crank to transport the beer.
“We’re basically talking about medieval technology,” McGarvey said.
A lot of businesses would not be able to automatically switch to that method, however, and a cask-ale would taste different, taking a gamble on customers’ taste buds.
Some bigger breweries have started recycling the carbon dioxide they emit during their fermentation process, but that option will most likely remain out of reach for smaller businesses for the next few years.
According to McGarvey, this is the first time in his 12 years of brewing that he’s been threatened with a CO2 shortage. He attributed that to the behind-the-scenes work of suppliers to shield consumers from the regional problem.
Carbon dioxide production relies on outputs from ammonia manufacturing, which is seasonal. Its off-season occurs during summer, when the food industry sees the most business, leading many plants to schedule maintenance during the summer months, like one that services Roberts Oxygen.
From McGarvey’s perspective, the shortage illuminates the problems with that model, along with the global supply chain at large, built on the just-in-time model. That production mode mandates manufacturing to meet demand, rather than in advance of need or to create surplus.
“Industry after industry, the predominant approach is short-sighted and unsustainable, and we’re all kind of at the mercy of it,” McGarvey said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com