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Friday, May 20, 2022

A science teacher explains: What if there was no carbon dioxide in the air?

As a life force behind photosynthesis, lack of this gas would create a domino effect with the food chain - no living plants and animals would mean no living humans.

By: Parenting Desk | New Delhi |
February 4, 2022 8:26:58 pm
Carbon dioxide (CO2), a naturally occurring tasteless, odorless gas in our atmosphere is equally vital to life as oxygen. (Source: Pixabay)

By Rachna Arora

Carbon dioxide stands out as one of the few entities which, although invisible, regularly feature in daily headlines, lead stories and public conversations for the wrong reasons, bearing the brunt of rising global temperatures and sea levels and melting glaciers. However, carbon dioxide (CO2), a naturally occurring tasteless, odorless gas in our atmosphere is equally vital to life as oxygen.

air-pollution-pexels Read on to know more about air pollution, pollutants, toxins and more. (Representative image/Pexels)

The natural world works on an incredibly delicate balance maintaining an equilibrium in the CO2 produced and consumed. The CO2 levels have witnessed stupendous rise since the industrial revolution with mother earth bearing the detrimental impact of climate change or global warming thereby bringing disrepute and infamously lending it a rogue name. Though it may seem that the absence of this greenhouse gas will end all our climate change woes creating cleaner earth, the outcome would be catastrophic, making it a frigid, dead planet.

As a life force behind photosynthesis, lack of this gas would create a domino effect with the food chain – no living plants and animals would mean no living humans. The problem is not CO2, but the excess of it.

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The usages of CO2 are varied across all forms including solid form called dry ice. Being inert, inflammable, inexpensive and easy to mass produce, it finds applications across diverse industries including food and medical industry and even in the entertainment industry to name a few.

As a lifesaving gas, when compressed to a liquid, it is widely used as a fire extinguishing medium. When released, the liquid CO2 reverts to gas form due to pressure and temperature drop, consequently extinguishing the fire. The wide usage for welding purposes, inflating rafts and life jackets further adds to its versatility in industrial applications.

The use of CO2 in the food industry is not limited to putting fizz in the soft drinks, making our cakes and bread soft and spongy, it can be used to make decaf coffee too! In fact, it has become an indispensable tool in commercial kitchens and restaurants. Dry food like grains if kept in a CO2 environment does not spoil for a very long time. Dry ice has made transportation and storage of frozen food stress-free. With a surface temperature as low as -78.5o C, it keeps food fresh. Finding an easy usage in portable coolers without requiring any external power source, it is proving to be a boon for economical transportation of perishable food items.

As dry ice directly evaporates, without coming into the liquid state, it is being rampantly used in medical research and investigations, storing biological samples, medical supplies and even organs without the fear of any kind of contamination. Applications in dermatological treatments for removal of acne, improving the texture and polishing the skin has made it a beauty buzzword.

CO2 plays an enviable role in the oil and gas industry too. When injected into oil reservoirs, it dissolves in crude oil thereby reducing its viscosity and enabling the oil to be extracted easily while remaining underground. This has also prompted the industry wide initiatives to capture and store CO2 into underground formations viz. depleted and abandoned oil fields, or rocks beneath the sea. Once placed there, CO2 remains trapped indefinitely and consequently removing the extra CO2 from the atmosphere. This potential benefit is attracting huge investment and further research towards scaling up and becoming a safe, viable commercial proposition.

This gas has found vivid applications to create suspense or melodrama, making it a scenic choice of the multibillion dollar entertainment industry. It is used in creating a dramatic and versatile effect of fog/ haze effect in movies and TV serials across genres, be it horror or sci-fi.

Its usage in rendering animals and birds unconscious before being slaughtered also makes it a ubiquitous choice among butchers.

Efforts are currently underway to produce clean, carbon-neutral fuel with the help of CO2. This so-called process of Carbon Engineering involves pulling out CO2 from the atmosphere, combining it with hydrogen and producing a synthetic fuel option. This is metaphorically having your cake and eating it too!

Is CO2 a necessary evil, a boon or a bane? CO2 is not exactly the villain, rogue or the monster gas as it is made out to be. It is rather a boon like water; too little will make us thirsty, too much will cause floods putting life on earth in jeopardy. In fact, the discourse around CO2 and global warming is yet another reminder to mankind to live within our resources and in balance with nature.

(The writer is PGT Physics at Shiv Nadar School, Noida.)

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