Caused by reduced gas production, as well as decarbonization, government incentives for sequestration, and a list of other issues, the food and beverage industry has been dealing with a shortage in the carbon dioxide supply. There have been times when manufacturers have not been able to get their hands on needed CO2—or it comes at an exorbitant price.
Though certainly made worse by COVID-19, the CO2 shortage is not a problem that will fade away. Many of the issues that got us to this place will continue, including the global need to minimize carbon footprints. A number of companies, universities, and other organizations are working on new technologies to come out the CO2 supply from different directions.
FuelCell Energy, with headquarters in Danbury, Conn., is one such company—developing a range of platforms to help organizations decarbonize power and produce hydrogen. The company also has a technology called CO2 Recovery, designed to help manufacturers produce their own on-site CO2 supply to be used in production. The ability for food and beverage manufacturers to self-supply CO2 ensures not only availability, but also consistent pricing and quality. When paired in a system with purification modules, the CO2 can be purified to beverage-grade.
Though FuelCell Energy’s fuel cells could be set up in any plant that uses natural gas or boilers to power its processes, where the technology most makes sense is a plant that needs CO2 in its process. That way, the CO2 becomes a value stream for the plant, helping it to reduce operational costs and supply chain issues.
With a career steeped in restaurant development and wind energy, Lindsey Cole, sales director for food and beverage, joined the team at FuelCell Energy about three years ago to combine her passions in food and beverage with renewable energies. She helps us make that connection, explaining her company’s fuel cell technology and why it makes sense for a range of food and beverage producers.
PFW: Give us an overview of the CO2 situation in food and beverage manufacturing and where FuelCell Energy saw an opportunity to address that.
Cole: We’ve seen the market over the past two to three years really shift. As the market has shifted with COVID, ethanol plants shutting down, less people traveling, we’re moving towards electric vehicles—all of that has impacted and started to shrink the CO2 market. You fold in here that the IRS incentives are saying, ‘Hey, we’ll pay you more to sequester and to bury this CO2, and to not sell it to outside customers,’ you again just see that shrink. There’s been contaminations in natural sources of CO2, so just another hit.
And there’s not really a good alternative for food and beverage to use today that is plentiful or easy to access. So they’ve seen a lot of price hits, force majeures from their current providers, and again, there’s just not a great replacement for what goes into your beer at the end of the day. And making sure that that’s consistent and that taste is there is a really key piece of this.
So where FuelCell saw the opportunity was ‘Hey, we can produce CO2 for you on site. We have the ability to create resiliency in your key ingredient and supply chain.’
PFW: The issue with the CO2 shortage seems to be getting a fair bit of attention right now. For our industry, is it all about getting bubbles in our drink?
Cole: There are three sectors that we’re focusing on primarily—the beverage and bottling industry, flash freezing, and meat processing. It’s a huge part of what goes into that industry of stunning animals humanely [primarily pigs and poultry], how they flash freeze the meat, how they chill the meat, how it’s ground—that all includes CO2 in different capacities.
PFW: Help us understand how FuelCell Energy’s technology is being used within a beverage facility.
Cole: We use our current technology, which is the molten carbonate fuel cell. In that process, it’s powered by natural gas or biogas or the combination of those two. We need essentially a methane-rich stream that’s coming into the fuel cells so that we can separate out those CO2 molecules.
We’re not using combustion in this process. This is a chemical process that happens as just part of how the fuel cell creates electricity, CO2, and heat. We can tap into that stream of CO2 that’s coming out of the methane molecules, we purify that to beverage grade, liquefy it, and then it can be stored on site to be used in their process.
PFW: What’s involved in the purification process?
Cole: We get it up to beverage-grade quality, and we follow ISBT [International Society of Beverage Technologists] standards to make sure that it’s there. We have partnerships with ISBT and outside parties to make sure that it’s audited and where the standards need to be. Our anode gas—the gas that’s coming off of the fuel cell to begin with—that CO2 stream is super, super pure, so it doesn’t take us very much to get it up to that beverage-grade level vs. other sources that you look at that are combustion-based. We have a purification skid that brings the CO2 to meet the ISBT specs.
PFW: How does this process look for other types of food companies that need CO2?
Cole: It looks very similar to what we’re doing with breweries or bottlers. They use CO2 in their process, they use a lot of boilers in their process, in the production of meat and harvesting, water and washing things down, and a lot of power, those plants take a lot of power.
We have the ability to be their baseload electricity, so that they’re getting sometimes greener electricity and power from us vs. off of the grid. We create that resiliency in the power, and then, again, that CO2 on site for them. But it works essentially the same—that we’ll have storage tanks on site where they have immediate access to the CO2.
PFW: Take us a little deeper into how the technology works. Can you walk us through the process?
Cole: We call our product CO2 Recovery because we’re recovering those methane molecules to create the CO2. We can become even greener if we’re operating off of biogas vs. natural gas, but it has to be a methane-rich stream so that we can pull out those CO2 molecules.
[Fuel cells electrochemically react fuel and air to create power.] There’s no combustion—it is a chemical process that happens within the fuel cell itself within the anode and the cathode. We have heat also coming off of these, and they operate at very, very high temperatures. So what’s great is it is another value stream. You’ve got the CO2, the power for the plant, as well as heat, so we could put this heat as hot water back into the boilers.
[Fuel cells can be configured as microgrids, supplying power during normal operation and in the event of a disturbance.] The power production is a big piece of this because the plants do take up so much power. Typically, we’re looking at plants that are using no less than a megawatt of power. Our smaller unit is the 1.4 MW, and that gets downgraded a little bit to offset for the production of the CO2 itself. We’re baseload power, so they’ll use that to power the plants. They’re typically running 24/7, and we’re making CO2 in that process. Our 1.4 MW makes about 10 tons of CO2 a day. Our larger unit, the 2.8 MW, is making 20 tons a day.
PFW: How much CO2 would a typical bottler need? Is that plenty for their production?
Cole: For a small bottler, 10 tons is plenty. If you’re looking at a larger meat processing plant, they’re using 30 to 50 tons a day.
PFW: Can they produce that much with your fuel cells?
Cole: We can go that large with the fuel cells. This becomes a matchup of where their power is; we can’t over-produce power because we need somewhere for that power to go as well. So it’s really finding that balance of using all of the products that are coming off of the fuel cell.
PFW: It makes sense that a food or beverage facility needing CO2 in its own process would benefit from having fuel cells in their plant to create that supply for them. But might it make sense for somebody just wanting to cash in on the CO2 shortage to sell the supply to somebody else who needs it?
Cole: Yes, but a lot of people don't want to break out of their normal business routine and shells, so that’s where that becomes a mindset change for their current operations. So yes, so you could go to a makeup manufacturer, for example, and they could use this to power their plant, they could use the heat in some other part of the process, because these are all value streams and products that are coming off of the fuel cell itself. But to get into a CO2 business, that’s not necessarily their core business and they don’t typically want to do that.
PFW: So this makes more sense for a brewery or soda bottler, say, because they can generate their CO2 right on site and they don’t have to worry about where their CO2 is coming from.
Cole: That’s right. It cuts the instability of their CO2, which is a key ingredient, and it cuts down their transportation costs.
PFW: What else do we need to understand about this process?
Cole: I do want to add that we’re currently installing, in our Torrington [Conn.] facility, our own demo site. We’re making sure that these folks are able to taste test it because taste testing, especially within the beverage industry, is really crucial—that consistency and making sure your beer at the end of the day tastes like what it’s supposed to taste like. They shut down plants to make sure that the CO2 and the quality of their product is on point at all times. Making sure that we’re able to do that and provide that is a big piece of what we’re moving towards.
PFW: As you talk with potential customers in the food and beverage industry about the prospect of them producing their own CO2 supply, is the conversation more about sustainability or more about having a steady supply of CO2?
Cole: It’s striking a balance. We’re pulling off flue gases from their boilers, so we do help reduce their emissions, and we are a cleaner source of power than most grids. So you have a sustainability aspect in there for sure. You then fold in that I don’t have to be up at night panicking about where my CO2 is going to come from because it’s going to shut down my plant and production. It’s a balance of those goals.
PFW: When you have the conversation with potential customers, are they still in a learning stage?
Cole: It’s definitely an education process. Fuel cells have been around; it’s not a new technology. I think the same thing with electric cars—it took 30+ plus years before we started having those conversations. Getting people to get comfortable with fuel cells, and just even knowing what they are, is definitely baseline. And then to hear that they can get one of their key ingredients from it: ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that’s where CO2 could come from. It’s another option.’ It’s definitely the education piece. And now we’re starting to hear a lot of enthusiasm. As procurement teams are up at night with those nightmares of the plant shutting down, they’re looking at these other sources.