The irony of the CO2 shortage

With the reality of global warming finally hitting home in the UK this summer with its scorching temperatures, how is it possible that the main culprit, carbon dioxide, is in short supply?

In an attempt to help make the link between the science classroom and the real life, we bring you an idea for how to segue from talking to your students about their holidays, to global warming and CO2 extraction methods!

The European fizzy drinks market has seen a CO2 shortage this summer. It got so bad that UK & Republic of Ireland pub chain, JD Weatherspoons was forced to take some drinks off the menu

The CO2 that companies such as Coca-Cola and Heineken use to make their drinks fizzy is normally created as a by-product of ammonia production for fertilisers. However, several big European fertiliser plants are closed for routine maintenance, and as a result of the current low price of ammonia and high manufacturing costs, they are in no rush to re-open.

We know that CO2 is a dangerous greenhouse gas, and levels are still rising, so why can’t fizzy drinks manufacturers extract it from the air?

Sadly, it’s not as easy as that. Extracting CO2 is an expensive business. There are a number of companies that do it, but despite CO2 levels in the atmosphere being higher than ever, it still only accounts for 0.04%, resulting in a removal cost of around 600 USD per tonne.

It’s not all bad news though. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, has shown that CO2 can be combined with hydrogen from water at a cost of less than 100 USD per tonne of CO2. This doesn’t solve the CO2 shortage, nor will it save us from climate change, but it’s a step forward nonetheless.

Furthermore, Stephenson Group, based in Leeds, UK, have been working on a solution to future CO2 shortages in the fizzy drinks industry. Their product, CO2Sustain, increases the solubility of CO2 and therefore reduces the amount of CO2 needed by around 20%.  Although no major drinks manufacturers are trialing Sustain at the moment, it could provide a viable option to alleviate the dependence the fizzy drinks industry has on ammonia production, preventing future shortages.

About Dr Catherine Barber
Dr Catherine Barber has a PhD in Atmospheric Chemistry from the University of Reading, UK. She works as a Commissioning Editor for International Baccalaureate resources at Pearson Education.

If you’re looking for science resources, check out Science Bug for primary scientists, Exploring Science: Working Scientifically for KS3, as well as resources for Edexcel GCSE (9-1), Edexcel International GCSE (9-1), Edexcel AS and A level Science, and Edexcel International Advanced Level (IAL) Science.