Loganville dry ice equipment maker prepares for vaccine effort

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

The realities of life during a pandemic have spurred a boom in the dry ice business.

The need to keep food shipments frozen as they are being transported to homes has surged in 2020. And, if a temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine is approved, as anticipated, it’ll increase even more.

That’s good news for TOMCO2 Systems, which manufactures dry ice equipment. The Loganville-based company is preparing for new markets of customers looking to make their own dry ice on demand.

“It’s bigger than vaccinations. It’s the trickle down impact on everyone else that uses dry ice,” said TOMCO2 vice president of sales and marketing Jeff Holyoak.

Acquired by Japanese firm Air Water Inc. in 2018, TOMCO2 has more than 100 employees at its Gwinnett County facility. It is one of the largest dry ice equipment makers in the United States and still manufactures the equipment under the TOMCO2 brand. It makes a variety of equipment for carbon dioxide storage and distribution, including dry ice pellet machines.

Right now, about 20% of its business is focused around dry ice, and the company is ramping up its production.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

“We have definitely realigned our organization for the future growth, specifically in applications like dry ice manufacturing, dry ice production and dry ice distribution equipment,” said Holyoak. At the same time, there’s growth in other segments of the company, such as cryogenic storage for the life sciences industry.

Next year, Holyoak said the company could see a 25%-40% increase in revenue and footprint. The company has the space to expand if needed.

This year, “We’re already producing ahead. We’re building inventory,” Holyoak said.

But it’s yet to be seen how much new dry ice equipment actually will be needed for vaccines.

That will depend on which vaccine is produced the most — since the Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold temperatures, while the Moderna vaccine can be kept in regular freezers for long-term storage — and where the dry ice is needed.

“Absolutely we’ll see a spike in demand and growth in the market,” Holyoak said. “How long and how much will depend on which vaccine is the clear-cut winner.”

UPS has its own dry ice production equipment. It plans to produce dry ice for its Pfizer vaccine shipments and turn to contract dry ice suppliers when needed. The Sandy Springs-based shipping giant said it will pack the vaccines in dry ice and send additional dry ice packages to pharmacies or other dosing sites that don’t have freezers capable of the ultra-cold temperatures required.

Dry ice is a temporal product ― it sublimates, or transforms from a solid to a gas, over time, and can lose about 8% of its volume a day. There are different types of dry ice machines — TOMCO2 specializes in the type used by industrial gas distributors to produce dry ice 24 hours a day.

Holyoak said until large-scale vaccine distribution starts, it’s yet to be seen where the shortfalls in dry ice supply and demand will be.

One of the bottlenecks could be that other industries that depend on dry ice — like the food industry and meal delivery companies — may have more difficulty getting enough dry ice if they have to compete with vaccine shipments for dry ice. Another issue is a potential shortage in CO2, which is needed to make dry ice.

“We’re trying to plan ahead and prepare for a new and burgeoning market,” including food companies that may need to start making their own dry ice instead of depending on distributors, Holyoak said.

But, he said, “We can’t get too ahead of ourselves.” If a vaccine that can be stored at refrigerator temperatures becomes the vaccine of choice, “that changes the whole dynamic.”