Beer Shortage Looms In Europe As Co2 Supply Dwindles

February 1, 2019

Forget the conundrum of whether your glass is half empty or half full – soon, in the UK, there may be nothing left in many beer glasses.

Soda drinkers won’t have much to toast either. It’s all due to a severe disruption in the supply chain for Europe’s industrial, food-grade carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that gives beverages their life, Gasworld, a gas industry website, reported on June 19.

The CO2 shortage isn’t just affecting beverages; it’s also causing major problems for meat production in Europe. Carbon dioxide is used in meat packaging to slow the growth of microbes and maintain the color and freshness of meat, and in slaughterhouses, it is used to stun animals before killing them, representatives of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) reported in a statement released June 21.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said in a June 20 statement that the trouble began with the recent closure of several industrial plants across northern Europe that supplied liquid carbon dioxide; the plants were closed “for a variety of reasons, including maintenance and refurbishment,” affecting a number of businesses that produce or distribute food and beverages.

BMPA officials reported on June 21 that the CO2 shortage could last “about four weeks.” In the days that followed, the flow of CO2 slowed to a trickle across northern Europe, with the UK being the country most affected by the shortage. According to CNBC, on June 26, a widely applied wholesale food and drink company in the UK began rationing the distribution of carbonated beverages, limiting companies to purchasing no more than 10 cases of beer and up to five cases of cider or soda.

At the same time, there is growing concern that “meat, beer and carbonated beverages will disappear from UK supermarket shelves if regular supplies of carbon dioxide are not restored soon.” Ian Wright, a representative of the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said in a statement released on June 29.

A purified gas
The carbon dioxide that makes your beer and soda bubble is essentially the same as that found in Earth’s atmosphere, but it has to be of food-grade quality. In other words, to be used in food or beverages, the carbon dioxide must be purified according to local regulations and standards, and then proven free of contaminants, Richard Sachleben, a chemist and member of the American Chemical Society, told Live Science.

This carbon dioxide is often produced as a byproduct of industrial or chemical manufacturing processes, such as those used in ammonia plants.Sachleben explained that it is dissolved in a liquid in a sealed container under high pressure. Once the CO2 is sealed, he says, it has nowhere to go until the container is opened, which is why you see the hiss rise in the bottle after you open the cap and release the internal pressure, allowing the CO2 to convert to a gas and escape.

“As long as you keep the pressure on, the carbon dioxide stays in the liquid – if you release the pressure, it’s released into the atmosphere,” says Sachleben.

But if you’re wondering if the UK and the rest of Europe could alleviate the shortage of CO2 by drawing it from the atmosphere – it wouldn’t be a practical solution, Sachleben told Live Science.

Even if atmospheric CO2 levels rise as a result of climate change, there is still only about four parts per million of CO2 in the air and it is mixed with nitrogen, oxygen and other elements. As a result, extracting and purifying carbon dioxide from the air will be quite an expensive and time-consuming challenge – at least to the amount usually collected from industrial processes, he said.