Ethanol’s Essential Role in Delivering the COVID-19 Vaccine

Source: By Ken Colombini, RFA • Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Among the long list of social media acronyms is “TIL” – “Today I learned,” which people use when they want to share something interesting that they just discovered for themselves. Here is a TIL example: Many people are genuinely surprised to learn about the ethanol industry’s important role when it comes to capturing and supplying carbon dioxide (CO2), which is used in everything from beverage bottling and food preservation to wastewater treatment and medical applications.  And here’s another TIL for you: the CO2 captured by ethanol plants will play an important role in combatting COVID-19.

Earlier this year, after the pandemic forced ethanol plants across the Midwest to shutter, there were numerous news stories (Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Raleigh News & Observer) about a shortage of CO2 for beverages and other uses. What most consumers don’t realize is that CO2 is what puts the fizz in beer and soda. They also don’t realize that the ethanol industry is responsible for capturing roughly 40 percent of the national supply of CO2, which equates to between 3 to 3.5 million tons annually.  So, there’s a very good chance the bubbles in that soda you’re drinking started at an ethanol plant.

As the COVID pandemic has raged on, the storyline has pivoted to focus on another use for CO2, and one arguably more urgent: dry ice production. In essence, dry ice is simply CO2 in its solid form. As we learn more about plans for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, it is becoming increasingly clear how enormous an undertaking this will be—especially considering the likely need for multiple doses.  Essential to the storage and distribution of some forms of the vaccine will be an adequate and stable supply of dry ice, something we don’t quite have. The Pfizer vaccine under development, for example, will require a significant amount of dry ice to ensure the storage remains at the required minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry ice is vastly colder than regular ice and is therefore used for shipping foods and other items (like medicine) required to stay below a certain temperature for a long period of time. In this case, it’s ideal for moving and storing the new Pfizer vaccine.

Due to the development of these new vaccines and the need to store them at such extremely low temperatures, we’re now seeing a slight increase in dry ice demand, which means a slight increase in CO2 demand. But the need for more dry ice is coming at the same time that CO2 capture in the ethanol industry is down. This is in large part because some ethanol plants that capture CO2 remain idle or are operating significantly below normal rates of output due to repressed demand for their primary product—fuel ethanol. While production of captured CO2 from ethanol plants has improved since the spring, it remains about 25 percent below what it was at this time in 2019.

Before the pandemic, approximately 45-50 ethanol plants (about one-quarter of existing plants in the U.S.) captured and sold CO2. During this ongoing national emergency, it is more important than ever before that we ensure a stable supply of captured CO2 is available to meet the growing demand for dry ice and other critical uses like food preservation. As our nation’s political leaders continue to debate additional COVID relief measures, we urge them to consider the important role the ethanol industry plays in providing captured CO2.