You might have been hearing about the wholesale price of gas surging in recent weeks.  The graph below, shows the change in gas prices since 23rd August.  The graph is shown as accurate at 11:15 am on 23rd September and shows that thee was a price spike a little over a week ago on 15th September.

You might have also heard stories in the news about potential shortages in various types of food and drinks, but was has the price of natural gas, from under the sea, got to do with cucumbers and fizzy drinks?

Firstly though, we need to understand why the price of gas has increased.  There have been fingers pointed at a number of different causes, ranging from a reduction in supply from Russia to a high demand for liquified gas from Asia and even the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Essentially, there is less gas available, so companies are having to pay more for whatever they can get, and in turn this price is passed onto the consumer. Then the company’s  profits have to be added on top of that, causing a huge price rise for the average bill payer.

But gas is not just used for heating homes and businesses, it can be used for all sorts of other products too.  One use is the production of fertiliser, for agriculture and horticulture, and as a by-product, carbon dioxide can be produced.

This can then be sold on for a wide variety of uses.  Food grade carbon dioxide can be used for:

Food grade CO2 is used for hundreds of products:

  • to carbonate water, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks
  • to dispense drinks and beers in pubs
  • to promote the growth of plants – such as cucumbers – in greenhouses
  • to stun pigs and chickens before slaughter
  • for packaging meats, baby foods, fresh foods and baked products (CO2 extends shelf life by preventing bacteria)
  • to keep food fresh in transport (CO2 is used in the form of dry ice and snow.

Carbon dioxide can also be used for non-food applications, such as:

  • cooling nuclear reactors
  • to fill & stabilise body cavities during surgery
  • to stimulate breathing
  • to remove warts and moles
  • inflation of life rafts and life jackets
  • filling fire extinguishers
  • a liquid solvent

We have a producer of carbon dioxide right here in our local area.  CF Industries, an American company, has three UK plants which between them produce 60% of the UK’s commercial carbon dioxide.  Due to the high gas prices, two of the plants, including the one on Teesside, have been closed, a process that will take 3 days to reverse, once supplies are again available.

All of this means that the food industry are facing paying up to £1000 a tonne for carbon dioxide, which is a significant rise from £200 a tonne!

So, why does a rise in gas prices lead to a shortage of cucumbers?  The by-product of fertiliser production is not available to encourage the growth of the cucumber plants, so there are fewer to be sold!

It really is fascinating, how a problem in one industry can have a knock-on effect in another, but it just goes to show how Science makes the world around us function!

Until next time, Keep Calm & Apply Some Science!

Read more:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-58626935

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cxwdwz5d8gxt/natural-gas