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What is Carbon Dioxide (CO2)?

CO2 Molecule

What is Carbon Dioxide?

Carbon dioxide is a vital gas that surrounds us, invisible and scentless. It consists of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.

CO2 typically exists as a gas, but it can transform into liquid under pressure or solidify into dry ice at frigid temperatures below -109°F (-78°C).

This ubiquitous gas plays a significant role on Earth. While the exchange between air and sea primarily governs global CO2 levels, human breath affects indoor concentrations more directly.

Is Carbon Dioxide Important?

CO2 in air

Carbon dioxide is a vital component for life on Earth, yet it is only 0.04% of our atmosphere. The gas plays a crucial role in plant respiration, fueling their growth and energy production through the utilization of sugars and oxygen.

As humans and animals inhale oxygen and exhale CO2, plants perform the opposite exchange: absorbing carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen. This intricate process forms the foundation of the carbon cycle that sustains all living beings and is the foundation for all life on earth.

When we breathe out, our exhaled air contains approximately 3.8% or 38,000 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide. However, due to rapid mixing with the surrounding air, this high CO2 level is quickly reduced to harmless concentrations in normal situations. 

Indoor CO2 levels typically range from fresh air at 400 ppm (0.04%) to 2,000 ppm. Outdoors, or fresh air is around 400 ppm; however, human activities such as power plants and transportation can elevate CO2 levels in densely populated areas by 5-15%, depending on various factors like time of day or season. In fact, the 100 largest cities in the world account for about 18% of global emissions.

What is Carbon Dioxide Used For?

Carbon dioxide, a versatile gas, has various applications across industries. It is  transformed into a liquid and stored in high pressure tanks for transport. These CO2 tanks are then utilized in many ways.

One of the primary applications of carbon dioxide lies in its use as a refrigerant. Gaseous CO2, when compressed and cooled, transforms into a liquid state, exhibiting remarkable thermodynamic properties that make it an efficient refrigerant. This has led to its widespread adoption in cooling systems across industries, from preserving perishable goods in the food and beverage sector to maintaining precise temperatures in pharmaceutical storage.

Additionally, carbon dioxide finds extensive use in the food and beverage industry beyond refrigeration. It serves as a key component in carbonated beverages, contributing to their effervescence and distinctive taste. Its inert nature makes it an ideal medium for preserving food by preventing oxidation and microbial growth, extending the shelf life of packaged goods.

The oil and gas sector also heavily relies on CO2, employing it in a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Injecting CO2 into oil wells facilitates the extraction of hard-to-reach crude oil, boosting production rates while also sequestering the gas underground, thereby aiding in carbon capture and storage initiatives.

Furthermore, carbon dioxide plays a pivotal role in the welding industry. In processes like shielded arc welding, it acts as a shielding gas to prevent atmospheric contamination during the welding of metals. Its inert properties help create a stable environment, ensuring high-quality welds with minimal defects.

Another significant application lies in the realm of fire extinguishing systems. CO2's properties, including its density and inertness, make it an effective fire suppressant in industrial settings. When discharged, it displaces oxygen, suffocating the fire by suppressing the crucial element for combustion.

The production of chemicals also leverages carbon dioxide in various ways. It serves as a raw material in the synthesis of numerous organic compounds, including urea, methanol, and salicylic acid. These compounds have extensive applications across pharmaceuticals, plastics, and agricultural industries, among others.

Moreover, CO2 plays a pivotal role in pH regulation and buffering in diverse industrial processes. Its ability to form carbonic acid when dissolved in water facilitates precise control of acidity or alkalinity, essential in sectors like wastewater treatment, pulp and paper manufacturing, and textile production.

How is CO2 Created on a Commercial Scale?

Industries harness several methodologies tailored to generate CO2, both intentionally and as a byproduct of specific manufacturing processes, catering to many applications across many commercial sectors.

One of the primary methods involves the extraction of CO2 from natural reservoirs during the extraction of natural gas. Natural gas often contains significant concentrations of CO2, and its removal is essential for the purity and quality of the gas. Extraction processes separate CO2 from natural gas through specialized techniques, resulting in purified carbon dioxide suitable for industrial utilization after rigorous purification and compression.

CO2 is also a byproduct from various chemical and industrial processes. Industries involved in the production of chemicals like ammonia, ethanol, and hydrogen yield CO2 as an inherent byproduct. For example, in ammonia production, one of the largest industrial sources of CO2 emissions, the Haber-Bosch process involves the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, resulting in CO2 as a byproduct. Similarly, ethanol fermentation in breweries and distilleries generates CO2, which can be captured and repurposed for industrial applications after purification.

The combustion of fossil fuels in industrial operations, including power plants and refineries, also constitutes a significant source of CO2 production. When hydrocarbons combust with oxygen, CO2 is released as a byproduct along with other emissions. These industries can capture and extract CO2 from their processes to prevent its release into the atmosphere using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to minimize environmental impact while repurposing the captured CO2 for industrial use.

The food and beverage industry actively generates CO2 for various applications. Fermentation processes involved in brewing beer, fermenting wine, and manufacturing carbonated beverages produce CO2 as a natural byproduct. This CO2 is collected, purified, and compressed for use in carbonation, preserving perishable foods, and enhancing certain food processing methods.

Carbon dioxide production for industrial purposes also involves intentionally engineered processes. Dedicated CO2 production plants utilize various techniques, including the combustion of natural gas or other hydrocarbons, to generate CO2 as the primary output. These facilities ensure strict control over production, allowing for the scalability and consistent supply required by industrial applications.

Once CO2 is generated and purified, it is compressed from a gas into a liquid at 5.1 atmospheres pressure (5.2 bar; 75 psi), and kept at a temperature below 31.1 °C (88.0 °F) (the critical point) and above −56.6 °C (−69.9 °F) to maintain its liquid state.

Learn more about the chemical properties of carbon dioxide.

Is CO2 a Major Pollutant?

Absolutely not! Carbon dioxide, often referred to as CO2, is far from being just any pollutant. In fact, it plays an indispensable role in sustaining life on our planet.

However, here's the fascinating part: while carbon dioxide may not be classified as an indoor air pollutant per se, its levels can serve as a crucial indicator of something much more concerning - the presence of dust, pollen, mold, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and even airborne micro-organisms like germs and viruses that have a detrimental impact on our air quality.

The higher the concentration of CO2 in a room or space, the less fresh and clean the air becomes. When CO2 levels start to rise significantly indoors, things can take a turn for the worse. People begin experiencing constant fatigue; headaches become their unwelcome companions; and there's even this unsettling feeling of sickness creeping up on them. Carbon dioxide itself isn't directly responsible for these issues until its levels reach around 2,000ppm (parts per million).

The next time someone questions whether CO2 truly matters as a pollutant or not, keep this in mind: although it may not be solely accountable for all our indoor troubles, it certainly serves as an alarming signpost pointing towards potential hidden dangers lurking within our precious air! Remember that maintaining optimal indoor air quality is vital for your well-being. By monitoring carbon dioxide levels alongside other pollutants using indoor CO2 monitors like these – which provide accurate real-time data – you can proactively ensure healthier living spaces free from harmful contaminants.

So appreciate carbon dioxide for what it truly represents - an essential component of Earth's atmosphere that contributes to maintaining temperature zones suitable for life.

Learn more about indoor air quality here.

What Are Typical CO2 Levels?

Organizations and authorities all over the world have established recommendations for the maximum permitted concentration of carbon dioxide and/or permitted minimum air flow in occupied buildings:

400-420 ppm - Common outdoor concentration in fresh air worldwide.

400–800 ppm - Risk for over-ventilation indoors when occupied (too much fresh air = energy wasted)

800 ppm - Target CO2 levels by commercial HVAC companies. It is also a maximum permitted concentration for offices in California. It corresponds to an airflow (a need of fresh air) of about 10 liters/second per person. 

1.000 ppm - The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommended maximum carbon dioxide concentration in a closed room. It is also a recommended as the maximum comfort level in many other countries, i.e. Sweden and Japan. It corresponds to an airflow (a need of fresh air) of approximately 7 liters/second per person.

2,000 ppm - According to many investigations this level of CO2 produces a significant increase in drowsiness, tiredness, headache and a common discomfort. Try reducing your CO2 levels indoors by opening windows, analyzing your air quality and checking your indoor ventilation.

5,000 ppm - Maximum concentration during an 8-hour working-day according to OSHA, ASHRAE and many EU countries.

50,000 ppm (5%) - The level at which CO2 is hazardous to human and animal life.

Is Carbon Dioxide Harmful to Humans?

Carbon dioxide gas plays a vital role in our atmosphere. It is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. However, when it comes to human health, carbon dioxide can have both minimal toxicity by inhalation and more significant effects as an asphyxiant.

As experts in this field, we want to emphasize that while carbon dioxide is minimally toxic when inhaled at normal atmospheric concentrations, it can become harmful in high concentrations within enclosed spaces. This is because CO2 acts as an asphyxiant, which means it reduces or displaces the normal oxygen levels in breathing air.

It's important to note that the primary health effects caused by carbon dioxide are due to its behavior as an asphyxiant rather than its direct toxicity. In other words, inhaling small amounts of CO2 won't cause immediate harm; however, if you find yourself in an enclosed space with elevated levels of carbon dioxide for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to oxygen deprivation and potentially dangerous consequences.

To better understand how carbon dioxide affects us on a physiological level, let's dive into some science. When we breathe in air containing CO2 from sources such as combustion processes (like burning coal) or even our own exhalations (as we naturally release CO2), our bodies work efficiently to remove excess carbon dioxide through respiration. The respiratory system helps maintain the balance between oxygen intake and carbon dioxide elimination. However, if there is too much CO2 present or inadequate ventilation occurs within a confined area like a closed room or vehicle without proper airflow exchange with fresh outdoor air – then problems may arise.

Signs such as dizziness, shortness of breath, confusion or disorientation could indicate increased levels of carbon dioxide affecting your body's ability to receive enough oxygen.

For more information on this topic, you can refer to reputable sources such as Wikipedia, Britannica, NASA, or even scientific journals like PubChem or NCBI. Understanding how carbon dioxide works and its impact on human health is an important part of learning about climate change and the overall well-being of our planet.

What are the Symptoms of Breathing Too Much Carbon Dioxide?

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Asphyxiation
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Convulsions
  • Fatigue

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Is Carbon Dioxide the Same as Carbon Monoxide?

CO2 must not be confused with carbon monoxide (CO), a very toxic gas that is a by-product from poor combustion (cars or fireplaces, for example). Carbon monoxide is dangerous at very low concentrations (25 to 50 ppm).

Learn more about the difference between carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide here.

How do I Monitor Indoor Carbon Dioxide Levels?

Monitoring carbon dioxide levels in your home is essential to ensure indoor air quality and to prevent potential health issues related to high CO2 concentrations.

These are just a few solutions to monitoring carbon dioxide in your home:

  1. Carbon Dioxide Monitor: Purchase a standalone carbon dioxide monitor that can analyze and detect high CO2 levels in indoor air environments. These devices are readily available online or at home improvement stores. They typically display real-time CO2 levels and may have additional features like temperature, relative humidity, and barometric pressure readings.

  2. Smart Home Devices: Some smart home systems offer environmental monitoring as part of their features. You can find smart sensors that measure carbon dioxide levels and connect to your smartphone or home automation hub. This allows you to receive alerts and track the data over time.

  3. Home Energy Management Systems: Advanced energy management and demand controlled ventilation systems include CO2 sensors to optimize ventilation and energy efficiency. These systems can help you regulate CO2 levels while also improving the overall energy consumption of your home.

  4. Smart Thermostats: Some modern smart thermostats also include environmental sensors, including CO2 monitoring. They can adjust heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) settings based on the indoor air quality.

  5. DIY Solutions: For a more hands-on approach, you can build a DIY carbon dioxide monitor using an Arduino or Raspberry Pi board and a CO2 sensor. However, this approach requires some technical knowledge.

How Do I Know if My CO2 Monitor is Working?

A simple test is to take your CO2 monitor outdoors for several hours. It should read approximately 400 ppm. Note that because different CO2 sensors have different accuracy ratings, low-cost CO2 monitors will read a bit higher or lower than 400ppm. 

Another test is to simply blow on your CO2 monitor. because human breath is approximately 3.8% CO2, you should see the monitor display immediately spike to a higher CO2 level when you blow.

Also, remember to place the CO2 monitor in a central location where you spend most of your time around 4-6 feet above the floor and away from drafts or direct heat sources. Regularly check and calibrate the device according to the manufacturer's instructions for accurate readings.

Monitoring carbon dioxide levels in your home can help you identify when additional ventilation or air purification is necessary to maintain a healthy indoor environment. If you notice consistently high CO2 levels, it's essential to identify the source of the excess CO2 and take appropriate measures to mitigate it.


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