The ethanol industry will be playing a critical role in getting a vaccine for COVID-19 distributed quickly around the nation and the world. That is because ethanol plants are responsible for capturing roughly 40 percent of the national supply of CO2, as much as 3.5 million tons annually – and CO2 makes dry ice, which is used for transporting things like vaccines that need to stay very cold.
Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) Communications Director Ken Columbini shared ethanol’s important role in vaccine distribution in a blog post this week on the RFA website.
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.