gasworld’s Global Managing Editor Rob Cockerill sits down with News Journalist Molly Burgess and reflects on the top stories from 2020 and shares his predictions for 2021.

Molly Burgess (MB): What would you say have been the top five stories from the 2020 industrial gas year? 

Rob Cockerill (RC): Firstly, I would say the pandemic, clearly, has been the story of the year. Our industry has demonstrated not only its remarkable resilience but also how important it is to healthcare and all our lives. It has also demonstrated its agility and adaptation, at a time when those two traits arguably have never been more important.

Secondly, I would say the early end of Helium Shortage 3.0 and by extension, the shape of a new helium market to come from mid-2021 onwards. CO2 (carbon dioxide) shortages have been largely local to the US market, and helium had been the only key product in tight supply globally; so to see that come to an early end, is a welcome relief (even if it was realised due to the pandemic).

Thirdly, the sheer rise of clean fuels and decarbonisation at the forefront of our industry this year has been another major piece of the puzzle coming together, particularly where hydrogen is concerned. If we keep that puzzle analogy going, then it feels very much like we’ve seen all the colours of the hydrogen Rubik’s Cube come together in 2020.

My final two choices relate to technologies at the core of the industry, areas we’ve seen big developments in again this year. Firstly, there’s the news that Air Liquide had finalised agreement with Sasol to acquire the biggest oxygen production site in the world, in Secunda, South Africa. Not only is that a story in its own right, with Air Liquide set to own and operate the 16 air separation units (ASUs) of this site in addition to the unit it already operates at the facility, there is also an element of that aforementioned decarbonisation involved. 

Air Liquide revealed its plans to reduce the CO2 emissions at the site arising from oxygen production by as much as 30-40%, which is a significant statement of intent. Further still, it was not the only site that Air Liquide identified emissions reductions targets for this year, clearly setting down a marker in reducing the carbon footprint of the technology at the heart of the industry itself. This is very much a trendline for Air Liquide and the industry as a whole.

Finally, we’ve seen more momentum building in the field of gasification technologies and projects this year, particularly from Air Products. Gasification is a long-established technology with a fascinating future, triggering mega-scale industrial gas projects, as we explored in an exclusive feature in the summer.

This is a path well-travelled by Air Products in the last couple of years, and the company has rapidly built an impressive portfolio in gasification technologies; it’s clearly an area of development that it has identified as a major growth driver in the years ahead. That path continued this year with news in May of a huge $2bn agreement to build a coal-to-methanol production facility in Indonesia, with air separation, gasification and syngas clean-up at the core – and that is why that announcement would be in my top five stories this year.

MB: Which of those would you say is the biggest? Why?

RC: I think it would be difficult to place one of those stories above another. What’s clear, however, is that many if not all are interlinked by common themes in decarbonisation or the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Industrial Gas year-02

MB: Can you share two or three observations from 2020? 

RC: We could go into so many different details and notes about 2020. It’s been a year like no other. As Linde COO-elect Sanjiv Lamba described during our virtual event earlier this month, these are ‘exceptional times’ we are living in. It’s been a challenging year, but it’s also provided some important reminders for the gases industry and I think I would make three overarching observations here. 

Firstly, we’ve had a reminder of the people element of our industry, and just how important that is. For all the talk of digitisation and automation, and I am at the forefront of that I have to say, there is still no substitute for the human touch, the human element of the industry - and we’ve seen so many examples of that this year.

The most pertinent and poignant of those is the heroic effort of those frontline staff in meeting the medical needs of fighting Covid over the last 11-12 months; we have to acknowledge that human side of the business and the fight to save lives.

There’s also the human aspect of doing business; the personal touch, the handshake, the rapport and the face-to-face relationship. We’ve missed that and been given a reminder of its importance by its very absence. 

Secondly, I think this year has provided a reminder of just how important our industry is today – to so many applications and walks of life. Meeting those intense, almost insurmountable medical demands has again been the indelible proof of that. We often talk about how robust this industry is, how solid and dependable it is, but in 2020 we’ve been given a true appreciation of how important it is, how critical its products are, and how Herculean its technological input can be. The industrial gases business is fundamental to industry and society. 

Thirdly, if we’ve been served a reminder of the fundamental role of the industry today, then we’ve also seen more than a glimpse of how imperative it is to our future. It genuinely feels like a new cycle is emerging or a new chapter is being written for the industrial gases business, globally. There is a mammoth role to be played in decarbonisation, clean fuels and the hydrogen society in particular. The pandemic allowed the world to embrace a collective pause and the interjection to truly reappraise our energy systems and how sustainable they are; and in doing so, the realisation that deep decarbonisation and a hydrogen society are essential has opened up significant new opportunities for our industry.

The wave of digitisation has also been advanced tremendously, almost by stealth this year, and recognition of the benefits this could bring to our industry has likely been accelerated. Striking the right combination between that human element we’ve been reminded of, and the inevitable digitisation of many systems, processes and products, could unlock a new generation of growth opportunities for the industry. I think we’re already seeing this, in 2020 more than ever before.

So this confluence of factors feels very much like the latest new cycle of growth and development is underway for the gases industry, a trend that will surely only continue in 2021.

MB: How would you summarise 2020 in a sentence or two?

RC: A year of challenge both for business and society, a year of trauma for so many personally, and a year of adaptation for us all. A year of clarity via the reminders of what matters most to us, what we value individually and collectively, and of course the value of our industry in achieving many of these ambitions.

MB: What are your predictions for the market/industry in 2021?

RC: Whilst I think we will see this new chapter for the industrial gases industry continuing to be written next year, I think the most immediate thing we’ll see is a focus on recovery and attempting to return to growth, globally.

The pandemic is not over, nor are its effects. So my guess is we’ll likely see a continuation of this current ‘new normal’ playing out for a little longer, while we transition back to the kind of business environment we were used to pre-Covid.

In terms of specific markets and hot topics, I think there’ll be plenty of pinch points and stories to keep a close eye on next year, which is what makes it so exciting and compelling for us to report on and analyse here at gasworld – and we’re more committed than ever to doing just that. Think helium, dry ice, CO2, hydrogen, circular economies, digitisation and more.

We expect that we will see a new helium market begin to emerge in the second half of 2021, for example, though in my experience delays are almost par for the course in helium projects, so let’s keep tracking that. If all the current talk is to be believed, then we may also see dry ice regularly in our headlines as it comprises one of the key components in delivering those vaccines upon which so much hope rests across the world. Clean fuels and green hydrogen will also continue to push forward. These are just three examples of what an incredibly exciting, industrious, and largely unpredictable year we have in store.