From breweries to chemical labs, the impending carbon shortage could disrupt normal business operations

Front Street Brewery could face lower carbon supplies due to a shortage in the Southeast. (PCD).

SOUTHEASTERN NC – Businesses from bars to restaurants to poultry plants are experiencing the early stages of a carbon shortage, another exposure of a supply chain problem sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last month, Denbury, a major carbon dioxide producer, discovered gas contamination at its Jackson Dome facility in Mississippi. In turn, many suppliers who cannot filter pollutants in-house were left with products they could not distribute, along with a standstill in production.

One company affected is Roberts Oxygen, a Raleigh-based company whose spokesman said it could not disclose the names of its suppliers. A source from Roberts Oxygen told PCD that of the three companies it gets carbon dioxide from, one is contaminated and another is down for routine maintenance, leaving Roberts’ operations at just 25% of normal.

A carbon shortage will perhaps have the greatest impact on the beverage industry. The gas requires a higher level of purity for liquid consumption, which means greater decontamination efforts, and it serves as the backbone for breweries.

Roberts distributes CO2 to Wilmington’s Front Street Brewery and Flying Machine Brewing Company. FSB brewmaster Christopher McGarvey said a dramatic drop in carbon supplies would be a “catastrophic failure”.

“There is no way to drastically reduce CO2; it’s fundamental to brewing beer,” McGarvey said.

Front Street, which has four carbon dioxide tanks on its lane, has yet to see a disruption in its refueling, which McGarvey says happens every six weeks, but could face a reduced supply in the future.

“It’s more like observing which direction a hurricane is going to move,” McGarvey said.

Carbon dioxide is used in the fermentation process of beer and its transport from cask to bar. McGarvey explained that once the beer is brewed, carbon dioxide is used to “purge” the tanks of air, with the gas continuously flowing into the kegs for at least an hour.

CO2 is then used to transport the liquid to the bar, where it meets more CO2 for a crisp flavor on tap. For restaurants that do not produce their own beer, portable CO2 canisters are sufficient. But breweries like Front Street have to rely on truck deliveries — the bigger the operation, the more gasoline is needed.

Carbon dioxide is used in other industries besides the beverage industry, although other local businesses do not appear to be as vulnerable.

Water parks and pools can use CO2 instead of acidic mixtures to control the pH of the water. In midsummer it can also endanger splash surfaces. However, city and county spokesmen told the PCD that carbon dioxide is not used in any of their water recreations.

The gas in its solid form, also known as dry ice, is used, for example, in research and pharmaceutical laboratories and in food transport.

The poultry industry, already facing a national shortage caused by winter storms in the Gulf and an outbreak of bird flu in the spring, could see some impact on how it ships and packs produce without enough dry ice.

Dave Witter is Manager of Corporate Communications and Sustainability at House of Raeford Farms, a family owned poultry farm in Rose Hill, 45 miles from Wilmington. The Company operates 454 farms in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and processing facilities in the Southeast.

He said the company has experienced intermittent carbon shortages, but that hasn’t impacted the shipping schedule.

“A CO2 shortage would not pose a supply problem for our customers,” Witter said. “We would just pack the product in wet ice until the CO2 shortage subsides.”

The opposite is true for research labs at UNCW. The chair of the university’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Jeremy Morgan, said dry ice is a necessity most days.

It has a temperature of -78 degrees Celsius, which creates a “cold bath” when mixed with certain organic solvents. Sometimes a regular ice bath that doesn’t get below 0 degrees Celsius can be used instead, Morgan explained.

“We use these baths to control the temperature of reactions that are done in the lab,” he said. “Not all projects require a -78 bath, but we also do solvent transfers every day when a cold bath is required.”

Morgan added that alternatives like liquid nitrogen are more difficult to control and -78C chillers are too expensive to buy.

So far, UNCW has had no problem getting dry ice that they order from Airgas.

Referring to the beverage industry, McGarvey said he was told Roberts Oxygen would begin rationing carbon supplies. Front Street has bought a few more portable canisters, but has also begun preparing to conserve as much gas as possible by locating and patching small nooks and crannies where gas could leak.

Should there be a large-scale drop in carbon dioxide, he said Front Street would halt production of new beer and use the limited carbon dioxide to sell open kegs until they run out. After that, the business would have to rely on selling groceries and liquor.

McGarvey added he also bought a spunding valve that regulates the pressure inside the kegs to allow for natural carbonation. However, that would not be a way to get the draft beer into the bar.

Front Street may have to resort to the British way, McGarvey said, which involves a keg, a wish-list item for him and a hand crank to transport the beer.

“We’re basically talking about medieval technology,” McGarvey said.

However, many companies could not automatically switch to this method and a draft beer would taste different and jeopardize customers’ taste buds.

Some larger breweries have started to recycle the carbon dioxide they emit during their fermentation process, but that option will most likely remain out of reach for smaller companies for years to come.

According to McGarvey, this is the first time in his 12 years as a brewmaster that he has faced a carbon shortage. He attributed this to the suppliers’ work behind the scenes to protect consumers from the regional problem.

Carbon dioxide production depends on the seasonal results of ammonia production. The off-season occurs in the summer when the food industry sees the most business, leading many facilities to schedule maintenance activities during the summer months, such as B. one serving Roberts Oxygen.

From McGarvey’s point of view, the deficiency highlights the problems with this model, along with the global supply chain in general, which is built on top of the just-in-time model. This mode of production dictates that manufacturing must meet demand rather than anticipating demand or creating surplus.

“Industry by industry, the dominant approach is short-sighted and unsustainable, and we’re all kind of at its mercy,” McGarvey said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at [email protected]

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