Avoiding another carbon dioxide crisis

Louise Smyth

Last month’s carbon dioxide (CO2) shortage in the UK caused retailer Booker to ration its sales to ten cases of beer per customer, Scotland’s biggest abattoir to close temporarily and supermarket Morrisons to suspend delivery of some frozen foods. The impact of the crisis was felt across Britain, but could it have been avoided with better use of technology? Here Jonathan Wilkins of obsolete parts supplier EU Automation suggests how predictive maintenance could prevent another CO2 crisis.

CO2 has several important purposes in the food and beverage industry. For example, it’s used as the most humane way to stun pigs and chickens before slaughter. It also gives carbonated drinks their fizz, is used in packaging to extend the shelf life of salads and is used to create dry ice for keeping products chilled during transit. Unfortunately, the mini heatwave and the FIFA World Cup that coincided with the CO2 shortage increased the demand for chilled foods and fizzy drinks, worsening the situation.
What’s maintenance got to do with beer?

Most of the CO2 sold commercially is produced as a by-product in ammonia and hydrogen production plants. A primary cause of the shortage was that many of Europe’s ammonia plants shut down for scheduled maintenance at the same time, leaving very little commercial CO2 production. 
Scheduled maintenance applies the principle that a component is unlikely to fail if maintenance is performed on a regular basis. While this is true, scheduled maintenance means that sometimes, engineers waste time and money performing maintenance work unnecessarily. For example, an engineer may replace a filter as per the annual requirements in the scheduled maintenance plan, even though the filter has the potential to work effectively for another six months.
During scheduled maintenance, work is completed on a large number of components over a short time. This means that several machines are out of operation at once, so the entire plant usually has to be shut down. As well as the potential problems this causes for customers, plant downtime has financial consequences due to loss of productivity and the expense of restarting entire systems.
If Europe’s ammonia manufacturers had used predictive maintenance strategies, perhaps they could have avoided the need for scheduled downtime, saving them money and avoiding the CO2 crisis. By adopting this strategy, plants would only be shut down for maintenance when necessary – which would reduce the likelihood of multiple European plants shutting at once.
How does it work?

Predictive maintenance relies on real-time data analysis to identify faults in a system before they become serious enough to impact business output. For example, vibration and noise sensors can continuously collect data on a motor’s condition. Any change in the vibration or noise indicates a fault or deterioration and the sensors can communicate wirelessly with a human-machine interface (HMI) to alert the maintenance team of the problem.
With early identification of parts that have deteriorated or are developing a fault, maintenance teams can fix or replace the part with little, if any, plant downtime. This is because the components only need to be repaired or replaced when required and not all at once. In many cases, while work is being done on one component, other systems in the plant should still be able to operate, minimising the impact on the company’s productivity and customer service.
For the sake of football fans who want to buy more than ten cases of beer ready for their team’s next match, who want bacon for their sandwiches and an ice cream at half time, let’s hope predictive maintenance can prevent this problem from arising again.

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