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CO₂ shortage: the chemistry behind the crisis

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As far as the environment goes, carbon dioxide is probably public enemy number one. This makes it all the more ironic that the UK is currently suffering from a shortage of the gas, which experts warn will affect a variety of industries, most notably food and drink.

In the right setting, CO₂ is an extremely useful gas. When added to beverages it gives them their fizz. Trap it in high pressure bubbles in sweets and you get popping candy. Compress it in a cylinder and you have a fire extinguisher. Freeze it and you produce dry ice which is used to keep medical materials (including COVID vaccines) chilled during transport.

The microbial organisms that cause food to perish need oxygen to survive, so packaging salad leaves with CO₂, not oxygen, keeps them fresh. Meanwhile, in the meat industry, high concentrations of the gas are used to replace oxygen in the air animals breathe, rendering them unconscious before they are slaughtered.

Given our need for CO₂ in one area, and the excess of it in another, the obvious question is: why don’t we simply pull carbon dioxide out of the air? The simple answer is that, despite its detrimental impact, there’s relatively little carbon dioxide in the air. Though we have 50% more........

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