Good old carbon dioxide. Plants need it, we need it, the beverage industry needs it, but our planet is getting too much of it.
Take wineries and breweries. When they ferment something to create alcohol, the CO2 gets released into the atmosphere. And since we’ve got the technology and advancement to capture carbon, why not absorb it back and utilize it?
Well, that’s what some companies have done. Some craft breweries have started to collect that gas and reuse it to give beer its iconic, characteristic white foam. In the process, they’re also reducing CO2 emissions, although not by much.
As an example, a brewery called Austin Beerworks used to truck in carbon dioxide in tanks 10,000 pounds at a time. But it’s different now: the company is using techniques developed by NASA to capture the naturally produced CO2 and dissolve the molecules into his brews.
“The technology isn’t simple but it’s, like, why aren’t we using it?” asked Clinton Mack, the company’s cellar manager. The people at Austin Beerworks have called the machine CiCi, short for “carbon capture.”
The role of CO2 in beverage sector
CiCi takes in CO2 that flows from the fermenters through pipes that snake around the brewery, filters it to more than 99 percent purity, and condenses it into liquid. Then, the machine stores the resulting condensed gas for use elsewhere, like carbonating beer.
Mack said that using the technology is the right thing to do.
For one, a brewery like Austin Beerworks can release about one-third of a pound of CO2 per gallon of beer, which adds up to about 210,800 pounds annually. That’s about the same amount of CO2 that 21 gas-powered cars release in an average year.
Secondly, carbon capture provides a cost-saving measure for the brewery: CO2 is a valuable ingredient in beer production. And now, more brewers are trying to find new ways to use the gas they already produce to save money as the cost of all major brewing ingredients has outpaced the consumer price of beer.
“CO2 isn’t just a process element in beer, it’s an ingredient. It’s so critical,” said Chuck Skypeck, the technical brewing projects director for the Brewers Association.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates the purity levels of CO2 used in beverages such as beer and soda, but it can come from a variety of sources. Most beverage-grade CO2 is a byproduct of the chemical industry, including from the production of ethanol, natural gas and fertilizer.
Coca-Cola bottler capturing CO2 and put it in its drinks
In Elmsford, New York, a 51-year-old Coca-Cola bottling facility called Liberty has planned to improve its energy reliability through capturing carbon dioxide during production to carbonate beverages including Sprite, Coke and Fanta made there. The project is currently under construction, called the “quadgeneration” system.
Installation of the system itself is undertaken by Clarke Energy (a division of Kohler Co.). This will enable Liberty’s 21.5-acre site to generate its own electricity. Other than that, the system can also power heating and cooling processes such as creating steam for sanitation and chilling beverages before they’re bottled.
Moreover, it will support a new system which will let Liberty use self-recovered carbon dioxide to carbonate its beverages instead of sourcing it from other places.
These systems have actually existed for some time, but we find them more common in greenhouses where operators or farmers use carbon dioxide to encourage plant growth. “However, another promising market is the food and beverage industry, where CO2 is the most common compressed gas used,” Guidehouse Senior Research Analyst Peter Marrin said.
Clarke Energy CEO Jamie Clarke added, “This complex technology will substantially reduce Liberty’s carbon emissions through high-efficiency local energy production.
“With the benefits of the recent Inflation Reduction Act and increased price of CO2 globally, this provides many opportunities for carbon capture technologies in the United States.”
The company was inspired by a lot of factors—one of them being sporadic blackouts that have become more common in New York state.
In total, the team spent 3 years from planning to commissioning. According to the senior manager of operations engineering for Liberty, the project eliminates the need to rely on the grid as the site’s primary energy source.
Along the way, the team found out that it worked for two related things: the need to reduce atmospheric CO2 while simultaneously ensuring an adequate supply of CO2 purified to food-grade standards.
The Liberty team spent a lot of time doing technical evaluations as well as working with local officials to earn the approvals. Several boards have reviewed and approved variances for the towers to absorb the CO2 as well as overall changes to the site to add the new engines.
This new initiative by Liberty is important to the brand’s 5-year-old World Without Waste strategy.
The strategy includes making 100 percent of the company’s packaging recyclable by 2025, working toward a one-for-one collection system for Coca-Cola cans and bottles, and collaborating with customers, governments and other organizations. So far, the company has invested more than $60 million in its corporate sustainability efforts.
“If you really authentically care, you will do the right thing,” said Liberty’s co-owner Paul Mulligan.
Machines that capture carbon dioxide
Going back to CiCi, this technology was first developed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Before, scientists studied and researched this technology in order to find out how to generate resources for humans to live and work in extraterrestrial environments, such as the moon and Mars.
For instance, to allow future astronauts to breathe on Mars, engineers built a system to capture the CO2-rich Martian atmosphere, clean it and create breathable air by stripping the carbon. Then, NASA licensed the technology to companies that could adapt it for use on Earth.
One of those companies was Earthly Labs, which first tried to deploy it to scrub the air in homes or near large, commercial boilers.
Now, CiCi is in 70 breweries in at least 25 states, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, with at least 20 more waiting for installation.
Numerous other companies are manufacturing comparable carbon-capture solutions, including Pentair, a British company operating on a larger scale, Hypro Group, based in India, which has started marketing compact units in the United States, and Dalum Beverage Equipment, a Danish firm that has previously conducted small-scale carbon capture operations in Europe and has recently expanded into the U.S. market.
Skypeck noted that Earthly Labs was among the pioneering companies to develop a cost-effective system tailored to the needs of small-scale brewers in the United States.