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carbon reduction or carbon increase? This is really a confusing question!
For the food and beverage industry, carbon dioxide has always been a “love hate” existence.
As the “public enemy” of the global climate problem, carbon dioxide can be said to be a stumbling block to the sustainable development of all industries in all countries. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions, or “sequestering” excess carbon dioxide in the air, has been a crucial part of sustainable strategies for many years.
More and more food and beverage companies around the world are trying to convert the captured carbon dioxide into usable products. As a global leader in carbonated drinks and a major user of carbon dioxide, Coca Cola is no exception to join this boom. At the end of August, Coca Cola announced that its partners in Europe (bottlers) would cooperate with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to develop a scalable method to convert captured carbon dioxide into sugar, and strive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Coca Cola’s supply chain.
On the one hand, it tries to reduce the “free” carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; on the other hand, carbon dioxide is regarded as a “lifeline” by major food enterprises like a “life-saving straw”.
This year, there has been a shortage of carbon dioxide around the world. The gradual tightening of carbon dioxide supply has seriously hit enterprises in various countries. The food and beverage industry, in particular, has suffered a lot. Industry giants including Coca Cola, Tyson Foods, kraft Heinz and so on have been looking for sufficient supply sources, while more small and medium-sized enterprises are facing the risk of stopping production or even closing down.
Is carbon dioxide surplus or deficient? How to treat the two seemingly contradictory issues of sustainable carbon reduction and industrial carbon production dialectically? How can the food and beverage industry ease and resolve the pain of carbon dioxide shortage?
Carbon dioxide has been lacking. Why is it the most serious this year?
As an important industrial raw material, carbon dioxide can react with other substances to generate synthesis gas, and then generate methanol, fuel, alcohol and other hydrocarbons, or make chemicals, olefins, urea and so on. In addition, it can also be made into degradable plastics and become food raw materials. It is widely used in food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
However, not all carbon dioxide emissions can meet food grade standards. For example, carbon dioxide with a purity of 99.99%, even if it contains only 20 parts per billion of benzene, is still a mixture containing impurities and cannot be used in food processing.
Before being used as raw materials or processed as food, most food enterprises will use a complex seven step purification process to purify them to reach food grade. The most effective way to prepare carbon dioxide is to separate carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms by burning natural gas. The hydrogen atoms combine with nitrogen to produce ammonia (final product), and the carbon atoms combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (by-product), which is then sold to industries that need it.
Commercial carbon dioxide
Now, in order to get out of the energy crisis, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and other European countries that have strongly called for giving up coal and advocating environmental protection recently announced to reopen coal power plants or take measures to support coal power projects. This “reverse” move may alleviate the temporary crisis, but it may not solve the problem of carbon dioxide shortage fundamentally.
In the “low carbon” years, food enterprises are struggling to survive
Faced with the frequent shortage of carbon dioxide, how should food enterprises in Europe and the United States deal with it?
Take the UK as an example. The carbon dioxide “cut-off” in 2018 is enough to go down in history: local beer began to be supplied in limited quantities, the manufacturers producing barbecue meat did not have enough supply, ice cream production was reduced in large quantities, and the processing of crunchy cakes was suspended… Food production in the UK almost came to a halt. With the exaggeration of local media, it was described that “the world almost came to an end” after the lack of carbon dioxide.
In that year, Coca Cola had “suspended” the production of some carbonated beverages; Heineken’s production in the UK was also greatly affected. Not only food processing, but also the transportation of frozen food is seriously affected by the shortage of carbon dioxide. Dry ice made by compressing carbon dioxide is the core of maintaining the cold chain. Because of the shortage of dry ice, ocado, the leading supermarket chain in Britain, had to ration frozen food.
Since 2018, the UK has faced an imminent carbon dioxide crisis every few months. In October 2021, the British government was forced to inject “tens of millions” of pounds into CF industry, which reopened the Billingham factory in September of that year. Even so, the shortage of carbon dioxide caused by the continuous rise of natural gas prices has become the normal state of economic life.
The large-scale carbon dioxide shortage has led to the rising production and fresh-keeping costs of food enterprises. On the eve of Christmas last year, Michael Bailey, chairman of the turkey organization of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in England and Wales, revealed: “turkey production will definitely decrease during Christmas. Some larger producers have decided to reduce production, ranging from 20% to 50%, just to reduce the risk.”
Empty Turkey shelves in British supermarkets source: Times
Domestic supply can not be counted on, and overseas imports are “a drop in the bucket”. It is reported that the British government has decided to focus on the overseas import market, but it can only solve less than 20% of the gap supply.
Energy prices rise, raw materials shortage, consumption panic… When “Black Swans” keep coming, most food enterprises can only choose to reduce production or stop production to reduce economic losses. Can’t you really find another way?
From “carbon capture” to “carbon substitution”, how can the food industry meet the difficulties?
In 1983, the Kraljic matrix proposed by the economist Peter Kraljic was published in the Harvard Business Review that year, and is now widely used as an analytical tool for the company’s procurement portfolio. The matrix can also weigh the impact of supply chain risk and product shortage on profits through a simple analysis of the supply and demand situation of a certain country and industry.
However, the above two schemes can not completely replace the main carbon dioxide production and can not meet a large gap. Therefore, it is particularly important to find a long-term solution. At present, among various carbon reduction and control technologies, carbon capture technology has become the focus of research. Carbon capture refers to the technology of collecting, storing or reusing the carbon dioxide generated by large power plants, steel plants, chemical plants and other emission sources, including three links of carbon dioxide capture, transportation and storage. It can reduce carbon emissions per unit of power generation by 85% – 90%, known as the “last kilometer” of the zero carbon road.
The UK has planned to establish and promote this technology in the 2030s. In order to ensure that carbon capture is feasible, a large amount of investment in infrastructure is required. Besides the UK, start-ups in Switzerland and Canada, Japan’s IHI and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are also starting and building large-scale carbon capture plants.
At present, there are 19 plants with direct air capture carbon dioxide in operation around the world. With the rise of the global DAC plant construction boom, 85 tons of carbon dioxide can be captured every year by 2030, and 980 tons of carbon dioxide can be captured every year by 2050.
Solid state DAC technology source: ResearchGATE
If “borrowing carbon” from the air is regarded as “open source”, then reducing the use scenarios of carbon dioxide, or developing its substitutes, is an important measure of “throttling”. In 2020, the Royal Society of chemistry proposed to develop new gas raw materials as carbon dioxide substitutes, and nitrogen was the best “alternative”.
Source: PepsiCo official website
In the food and beverage industry, the utilization of nitrogen began with the rise of nitrogen filled coffee a few years ago. Since then, nitrogen beer and nitrogen milk have appeared one after another. At the end of February this year, PepsiCo launched a brand-new nitrogen cola. The foam is softer and denser, and the surface is smooth, with a “velvet” feeling. “Softer than soft drinks” has become the biggest selling point of nitrogen filled drinks.
In addition to taste optimization, the “quality” of nitrogen is neutral, and it will not cause damage to the mouth and intestines of consumers due to acidity, which has also become a reason for its gradual popularity.
In another consumption area of carbon dioxide – fresh food preservation, people are also reducing their dependence on carbon dioxide through a variety of technologies. Nitrogen is an ideal inert gas. The temperature of the food preserved with nitrogen will not change and the water will not be lost. It can form a perfect replacement for the traditional carbon dioxide preservation.
In addition to modified atmosphere fresh-keeping, in recent years, the food industry has also developed new fresh-keeping technologies such as low-temperature plasma sterilization, edible coating, nano zinc oxide, etc., which further reduce the “appearance rate” of carbon dioxide in the field of fresh-keeping while enriching fresh-keeping means, improving fresh-keeping effects and cost performance.
It is worth noting that carbon dioxide, as a representative of “safe, energy-saving and environmental friendly” natural refrigerants, is widely used in Europe. Nowadays, carbon dioxide refrigerant has become the mainstream choice of supermarkets and convenience stores in Europe,
Why do carbon dioxide and the food industry “love each other and kill each other”?
目前，全球有19个 直接空气捕捉（Direct Air Capture）二氧化碳的工厂在运行。随着全球DAC工厂建设热潮的兴起，到2030年可实现每年捕获85 吨二氧化碳 ，2050年则能每年捕获980吨二氧化碳 。
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