Is this the solution to the world’s CO2 shortage?

With the World Cup in full flow, a heatwave across the UK and barbecue season kicking off, the global CO2 shortage couldn't have come come at a worst time. But could an innovative new product by a Leeds-based manufacturer hold the key to overcoming the shortfall?

In 2016, 117 beers were consumed annually per head in the UK - data: Statista.
In 2016, 117 beers were consumed annually per head in the UK – data: Statista.

Why is there a CO2 shortage?

The CO2 shortage has been triggered by a higher than average number of European factories undertaking essential maintenance which often occurs during the summer months.

These factories predominately supply fertiliser to the agricultural industry, and carbon dioxide is produced as a by-product of the process.

This CO2 is captured, stored and then sold to the food and drink industry to produce fizzy beverages. The gas is also used to stun animals prior to slaughter (typically chickens and pigs), as a preservative in packaged products like meat and poultry, used to create dry ice, and in pubs and bar to help transport some alcohol products from pressurised kegs to pint glasses. 

Fertiliser plants often undergo downtime during the summer as that correlates with crop harvests and less fertiliser is required by agricultural businesses. This year, however, too many factories have shut down leading to the current crisis.

The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) said in a statement that the issue is, “Being further complicated by a combination of planned plant shutdowns and unexpected equipment failure, in particular in connection with one of the two major national producers of bulk CO2.”

This is having a huge knock-on affect in the food and drink industry, with recent announcements including:

  • Wholesaler Booker has limited sales to restaurants, bars and pubs to just 10 cases of beer and five cases of cider and soft drinks. In a statement, Booker said: “We are currently working hard with our suppliers to minimise the impact for our customers and cannot comment further at this stage.”
  • Some JD Wetherspoon pubs are currently without John Smith’s and Strongbow because of the shortage.
  • Coca-Cola has also announced the temporary pause on the production of certain soft drinks.  

The answer?

Leeds-based speciality chemicals manufacturer, Stephenson Group, believes it may have the solution.

CEO, Jamie Bentley, told The Manufacturer: “We started working on our product, Sustain, in 2010 and it took five years to secure a patent.”

Jamie Bentley. CEO, Stephenson Group.
Jamie Bentley. CEO, Stephenson Group.

Stephenson Group has developed a carbon dioxide solubiliser, reportedly capable of putting the ‘fizz’ back into carbonated drinks; well nobody wants a flat beer or soft drink.

Bentley said: “We know if you want to make a drink and retain the same level of fizziness, we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide needed by around 20%.” A potential attractive proposition for a major CO2 user.

He explained how the product was developed by accident when one of the firm’s chemists was working on a product to reduce the amount of foam produced in fizzy drinks, which was slowing down production lines.

The resulting product achieved that goal, while also retaining a higher level of fizziness than regular carbonated beverages.

He said: “Sustain brings a significant cost saving, a significant environmental benefit of using less CO2, but the real place we have won customers is the consumer gets a better product, because the carbon dioxide comes out of the product when a consumer drinks it, instead of when they open it.”

When asked about how much is needed and whether a limitless amount of Sustain could be produced, Bentley used an analogy.

He replied: “It is used in the tiniest amount, three parts per million, if you imagine a big football stadium full of people, it is the equivalent of one child’s hand.”

Bentley explained that no major drinks manufacturer is willing to trial Sustain currently, but the product has already been integrated into the South American and Indian markets.

“In terms of solving the shortage problem, it could be an immediate solution, but no major soft drinks manufacturer is going to put this straight in their product and sell it.”

He concluded: “We have international customers, we are doing well in South America – there is a giant soft drinks industry there, India, Eastern Europe and we have products in some of the UK brands.”