Uses of CO2 (1)

8 Uses for CO2 in Everyday Life

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Carbon dioxide tends to get a lot of bad rep, especially in environment-conscious spaces. It is the most prevalent anthropogenic greenhouse gas, hence the term ‘carbon’ emission or footprint. At the same time, CO2 is an essential part of life on Earth. This colorless, odorless gas has various applications across industries. Here are eight uses for CO2 in everyday living.

1. Respiration 

The very act of breathing involves carbon dioxide. On average, humans exhale 2.3 pounds of CO2 daily. This gas is a byproduct of metabolism at the cellular level. It is transported to the lungs via the bloodstream and ultimately expelled when you breathe out. 

CO2 is integral to regulating blood pH — the amount of fluid and the balance of acids and bases — with around 10% dissolved in the plasma and hemoglobin, respectively. Low levels of CO2 in the body are often precursors to a number of diseases, including Metabolic acidosis, Respiratory alkalosis and Diabetic ketoacidosis. 

2. Photosynthesis

Plants need CO2, like humans need oxygen. Most life on the planet depends on photosynthesis, of which carbon dioxide represents the most critical component. Trees absorb roughly 48 pounds of CO2, releasing oxygen as a by-product. 

Carbon dioxide is also integral to plant growth and yield. Rising levels in the atmosphere enable an increase in plant photosynthesis, helping to boost global agriculture. Food crops such as rice and wheat can see up to 14% increase in yields from higher CO2. 

3. Surgical Procedures 

Pure CO2 is 100% sterile and nonflammable, making it useful during laparoscopic surgery. This operation involves a laparoscope — a flexible tube with a light and micro video camera on the end so the surgeon can see what’s happening. 

CO2 is the most common gas used for inflating the abdomen to increase operative space and visualization during a laparoscopy. Similarly, it is the go-to insufflation medium during colonoscopies. 

4. Carbonated Drinks  

You can already tell from the name that carbon dioxide is an essential component of everyday beverages, including beers and soda pops. High-pressure CO2 forced to dissolve in water creates that fizzy effect in your favorite soft drinks. This gas also removes caffeine from raw, unroasted coffee beans to make Decaf. 

There’s also dry ice, which is just frozen CO2. It’s used in winemaking to cool down grapes so they don’t ferment due to wild yeast. Unsurprisingly, the beverage industry is the largest user of CO2, accounting for over 26% of the market.

5. Skin Care

CO2 laser resurfacing is a common treatment for skin conditions such as acne scars, fine lines and skin aging. High-voltage electricity is passed through a sealed tube containing inert carbon dioxide and nitrogen to generate a powerful infrared beam known as a laser. 

Dermatologists use this beam to remove the outer layers of damaged skin without harming the layer underneath. This also makes the treatment suitable for targeting cancerous tissue on the skin with minor bleeding to the surrounding tissue.

6. Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Cooling

If you watch the ‘Big Bang Theory,’ you might have heard Sheldon or Leonard talk about the  European Council for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) collider in Switzerland. This particle accelerator helps scientists detect and analyze the tiniest fragments making up the universe. CO2 is essential in this process, cooling the machine as it operates at extremely high temperatures. 

The LHC restarted operations in 2022 following a three-year maintenance break. It is expected to run over the next 20 years, stopping only for upgrades and upkeep work. Plans are underway to reduce the environmental impact of the cooling system by saving up to 40,000 tonnes of CO2 yearly. 

7. Fire Suppressant 

Most of the fire extinguishers you see in offices and commercial spaces contain high-pressure carbon dioxide. Unlike some suppression agents like water that can reduce the intensity of a flame, CO2 displaces the oxygen fuelling the fire, cutting off the supply entirely. This makes it a more effective suppressor medium, especially in areas where a water sprinkler system might damage sensitive electronics. 

The adoption of modern suppression systems utilizing carbon dioxide is on the rise. According to the EPA, 20% of special hazard applications use CO2 to extinguish electrical, liquid and gas fires. 

8. Inflatable Devices

Carbon dioxide inflates different types of devices, including life rafts, jackets and bicycle tires. If you’re a cycling enthusiast, you’ve probably used one of those handy canisters containing compressed CO2 gas to fill your tire and quickly get back on the road. 

Many life jackets also contain a similar design, filling with carbon dioxide and providing up to 45% more buoyancy when activated. The gas can be stored at higher pressure in a smaller volume, so the vest or life raft inflates much quicker – an important feature in emergencies. Additionally, CO2 is readily available, so it’s a more practical resource for inflating mass-produced gadgets. 

Sustainable Uses for CO2

While the everyday uses for carbon dioxide are undeniable, it’s equally important that these applications do not harm the environment. 

To be clear, CO2 itself doesn’t cause problems.  The issue is the amount of carbon in the atmosphere produced by human activities, mainly fossil-fuel burning. According to the World Wildlife Fund, current CO2 levels are at their highest over the past 800,000 years. 

The good news is climate experts are starting to see carbon dioxide as a naturally occurring resource that can be harnessed to enhance sustainability. 

A 2023 Cambridge study created a solar-powered reactor to capture CO2 and convert it into clean fuel. Preliminary tests have been largely successful. However, filtering carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere on a large scale remains a considerable challenge. 

CO2 can also be repurposed into ethylene to facilitate the creation of new plastics. Ethylene is necessary for producing polyethylene, the most common polymer for plastic bottles, bags and films. This transforms an otherwise wasted resource into a useful material. 

What Have You Used CO2 for Lately?

From supporting life on Earth to processing drinks and treating skin blemishes, the number of uses for CO2 is growing. More importantly, this gas can potentially be more than the leading culprit in climate change. With advancing technology, carbon dioxide can play a vital role in transitioning toward a more sustainable future. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.