The seemingly illogical reason Europe is running low on carbon dioxide… and beer

Valuable commodity.
Valuable commodity.
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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English fans wanting to celebrate their round-of-16 win against Colombia in the 2018 soccer World Cup are complaining about not having enough beer. How could that be in a country inextricably tied to pubs and ales?

In part, it’s due to the shut down of European ammonia plants that’s contributed to a shortage of carbon dioxide (CO2) needed to put bubbles in beer. In a world being heated up by too much CO2, it seems odd that we’re in short supply of the greenhouse gas. And, yet, the way industries are set up to use this gas creates bottlenecks in the supply chain.

According to the trade publication Gas World, which first brought this issue to light, it’s the fourth such shortage in the last 10 years and the worst one yet. If we don’t fix the underlying problems, it’s likely to happen again.

The wonders of carbon dioxide

Setting aside climate change, carbon dioxide is quite useful. It causes Coca-Cola to fizz, Pop Rocks to pop, and cakes to rise. It’s ideal for use in food and beverages, because it’s colorless and odorless.

Carbon dioxide also has the ability to sublimate—that is, go from a solid to a gas while skipping the liquid phase altogether. That makes it a great refrigerant (because it leaves behind no trace), and it is widely used to keep cool salad, meat, and ready meals.

It’s also used to “stun” pigs in abattoirs. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it’s possible to fill a chamber with the gas and then simply lower pigs into it. In about 30 seconds, the pigs fall unconscious and then slowly die. (All methods of killing pigs have disadvantages, but some researchers consider the use of carbon dioxide the most reliable at large scale and better for animal welfare than, for example, electrical stunning.)

Combined, all those applications—which make up what’s called the merchant market—consume about 20 million metric tons of the gas annually in Europe (in comparison to 4.4 billion metric tons that the region spews out burning fossil fuels each year). But that’s only a fraction of the carbon dioxide used in the world.

The single-largest use of carbon dioxide is for a process called “enhanced oil recovery.” Oil fields are made up of sponge-like rock. After the easy pickings, oil companies need to inject fluids to push out more oil. They first start with steam, but oil and water don’t mix. So next they use liquid carbon dioxide, which is able to dissolve oil and push out even more from the reserve.

In the US alone, oil companies inject about 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into oilfields every year. The unfortunate thing about this is only about 25% of that comes from human sources. The rest is mined from carbon-dioxide fields, which exist underground just like natural-gas fields. (That said, given the US makes extensive use of carbon dioxide, it also means you won’t hear stories about a CO2 shortage in that region.)

The capture problem

As with the CO2 shortage for beer, it might sound odd that oil companies, whose products release the most carbon dioxide, are mining for the gas to extract more oil. But that’s how things stand because it’s not yet economical to capture carbon dioxide from the air, where we have too much of it.

The reason is simple physics. The chemical makeup of the air contains about 0.04% of CO2. Trying to capture carbon dioxide from the air is a bit like fishing for a red marble in a bowl of 2,500 not-red marbles. You could do it, sure, but imagine the energy needed to do it millions and millions of times.

At present, the cost of capturing carbon dioxide from the air is between $100 and $600 per metric ton. Most carbon dioxide sold on the merchant market goes for about $200 per metric ton. (The supply disruptions have caused some companies to raise prices by $300 per metric ton above the normal price for the little carbon dioxide they can supply). The merchant-market price is slightly higher than the low-end cost of capturing CO2 from the air, but as yet none of the technologies that promise to capture at that price can operate reliably.

That’s why most of the carbon dioxide used in the merchant market is either mined from a carbon-dioxide field or captured from factories that produce ammonia or ethanol. The chemical reactions run to make these bulk chemicals also create near-pure carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Companies like Air Products, Air Liquide, Linde, and Praxair—the largest suppliers of carbon dioxide—simply set up equipment on the site of factories that produce ammonia and ethanol. That helps the suppliers remove any water released in the production process, compress the CO2, and then pump it into cylinders or trucks to be shipped where it’s needed.

Behold “carbontech”

All this could change, however, thanks to a growing movement of industry professionals, lawmakers, scientists, and businesspeople. These “carbontech” entrepreneurs are working on two problems: lowering the cost of capture and creating new markets to put carbon dioxide to use. (Quartz published an in-depth series last year featuring some of their attempts.)

At point sources, such as coal or natural-gas power plants, carbon dioxide could be captured at costs less than $100 per metric ton. But there are barriers to building the additional infrastructure needed to capture CO2 at power plants. They need to be built big enough to capture at least 1 million tons per year, to ensure economies of scale keep costs low. Such big projects, however, need large financing deals, which are only available if there’s an assured market to recover the costs.

Still, if we do reach that point, another problem will emerge: Eventually, the increased supply of carbon dioxide will saturate the current merchant market. That’s why companies are now finding new ways to use carbon dioxide to make things like synthetic fuels, artificial diamonds, and premium chemicals. Many more such companies will be needed to keep growing the market.

But until that future arrives, the bottleneck of carbon dioxide supply is likely to stay in place.

Ammonia plants, for example, generally run from August to March, when the demand for fertilizers peaks. And then they are shut for maintenance. That maintenance period coincides with the summer in Europe, which is also the peak production time for soft drinks and fizzy alcoholic beverages like beer. Relative to ammonia or ethanol, carbon dioxide is an inexpensive product. So there is little incentive for the companies to run, if there isn’t enough demand for their main products.

This year, a heatwave in Europe and the World Cup added more demand for these beverages, and combined with closures (some planned and some unplanned) of ammonia and ethanol plants to make for a serious shortage. The first CO2 shortage began two weeks ago. Last week, it got worse, as more ammonia and ethanol plants went offline. Big brands such as Coca-Cola, Heineken, and Warburtons have been affected by it, and the problem is likely to last for weeks (but not months), says Adam Collins, an analyst at the consultancy Liberum.

Worse still, even if the shortage is relieved this year, Collins says there’s a long-term problem: European ammonia producers are finding it more difficult to compete with cheaper production in Asia and carbon dioxide isn’t valued enough to be economical to ship from Asia. So if Europe wants to increase its merchant-market CO2, it will need to look to technologies like carbon capture on power plants.

The soccer fans in Europe looking for beer are at the whims of a larger industry. Carbon dioxide isn’t just a climate problem, it’s also a supply-chain issue.