On Friday 8th October and Friday 15th October, gasworld welcomed several guests to discuss all things air gas related during Part 1 and Part 2 of the Air Gases webinar series. Part 1 of the Q&A saw global managing editor Rob Cockerill joined by industry experts Stephen B. Harrison, Managing Director of sbh4, Pierre Foret, Director of R&D at Linde, and Bernard Zenou, President of NOVAIR.

The guests answered a range of questions from argon in additive manufacturing to challenges faced in the large-scale rollout of pressure swing adsorption (PSA).

The first question centred around argon and AM.

With argon considered the main gas in additive manufacturing (AM), a question was asked about whether the industry will see a lot more argon in the market. Taking it one step further, are we going to need a lot more of it for all of these AM related processes?

Regarding the amount of argon in the market, Harrison said that a lot of these large-scale AM projects are optimised to that particular project.

“We’re not going to flood the market with argon, each project is designed to produce the gases that are needed in that region,” he said.

When asked if a large amount of argon will be required for all of these AM processes, Pierre Foret said that argon is the main gas in additive manufacturing.

“The demand for argon will grow in the future because argon is needed for the parts production for printing and for some post processes, so the demand will definitely grow with the growth of AM.”

If we’re going to see more PSA units across the world and potentially in developing countries, who is going to take care of the maintenance side?

The question was posed to Zenou, who defended his stance against a potential increase in maintenance requirements, saying that maintenance is not more complicated than doing maintenance on a compressor.

“Of course, there is a minimum of maintenance, but it does not need any specialist technician, any technician could be trained to do the maintenance,” he said.

NOVAIR's DS-PSA Generator.

NOVAIR’s DS-PSA Generator.

Source: NOVAIR.

“We are going to cover the complete services. We don’t sell the system; we are installing the system in hospitals, and we are responsible for all of the maintenance, and we provide it to all 72 hospitals.”

“But when it is not possible because we are not located close, our distributors with our partners and our team will be able to provide the maintenance to the clients.”

Zenou also said that training will be provided to technicians in a ‘very short time’,

Is there an update on the status of NOVAIR’s new oxygen monograph?

The NOVAIR CEO was then asked to provide a status update on the company’s new oxygen monograph.

Zenou replied, “There is a new monograph, which is under preparation by the European pharmacopoeia. The monograph will be for oxygen 98, covering the gap between 96 and 100.”

He added that the current monograph is for oxygen 96 +/- three, meaning that I’s covered from 92 to 96. Another monograph also covers oxygen produced by cryogenic distillation for 99.5, therefore necessitating the need for oxygen 98.

Shifting focus again to AM, Foret was asked to give more examples of AM applications.

With the medical industry being a huge proponent of AM, Foret described several medical applications that the technology can create, giving particular focus to the customation and freedom of design that it permits.

He explained, “Typically, implants like hip joints or large structures can be made with AM in a way that it fits exactly to the design of the patient.”

“In the manufacturing process, you have what we call a boot platform, and you can place all the different implants, each with a different design for different patient and print them during a night or a day and send those parts to different hospitals.”

Other sectors that have made use of AM include aviation, racing (Formula One) and the automotive industry.

“BMW has been doing AM for 30 years very successfully, “ said Foret, explaining that the technology has been used for rapid prototyping and customisation.

“In the near future, we sit at some new technology, especially binder jetting which will enable AM to rule in the automotive industry where the number of parts is much bigger.”

Concluding the Q&A section of Part 1, Harrison was asked to elucidate upon the most exciting topics he sees on the horizon in the air gases industry.

“First natural gas reforming oxygen for the ATR, nitrogen coming of the air separation unit to make the ammonia, blue energy islands are an incredibly valuable concept, making zero emissions hydrogen and making zero emissions ammonia,” he explained.

He also said that, despite the exciting developments in the world of carbon capture and storage (CCS), the industry needs to focus on how to mitigate methane emissions, give that methane over a 20-year timespan is 56 times worse for the environment per tonne than CO2.

Part 2 featured guests Jörg Balster, the Director of SEPURAN Process Gases at Evonik, and Thomas Scaramellino, the Senior Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at Arencibia.

The Q&A kicked off with a question aimed at Scaramellino about the importance of argon technologies.

With a quest for ever higher purity and quantities of argon, are these recovery and analytical technologies making a big difference?

“Yes, absolutely. I think particularly so when you look at argon and helium from an economic standpoint,” he replied. Continuing, he said, “I don’t see how over the next decade it’s possible to continue to produce all of the quantities we’re consuming in manufacturing from virgin processes.”

This applies to helium coming out of the ground and argon at air separation units (ASUs), even when accounting for the building of more on-site ASUs, Scaramellino said that maths just doesn’t add up.

“Recovery of mostly pure but not pure enough argon and helium is critical, it’s existential to a wide range of manufacturing industries. I think customers are starting to realise that largely through what’s happening with the pricing the availability issues that they’re already seeing in the market,” he concluded.

Transitioning back to the topic of applications, Balster was asked what the biggest application for argon was.

“At the moment, it’s biogas upgrading, so we have a lot of business going on in that sector,” he said.

“It all started in Europe ten years ago, when we entered the market you had water scrubbing technology, pressure swing adsorption, you always had a market share of around 30%. Membrane technology was just 3%.”

Evonik's SEPURAN membrane technology.

Evonik’s SEPURAN membrane technology.

Source: Evonik.

After contributing its membrane technology and also a separation solution concept, Evonik was able to ‘turn the market around’ in terms of biogas upgrading.

“Now when you look here in Europe, the biogas upgrading market is 80% membrane technology, so this is by far the biggest application we have, followed by the aviation sector”, he added.

With medical oxygen being a hot topic during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the guests were asked if either company has technology involved in the medical oxygen field.

Balster elaborated upon Evonik’s involvement in providing technology for medical oxygen, saying that the company received a lot of requests for supply.

“You can make a reasonable oxygen supply very easily, when we create nitrogen at 95%, the by-product was oxygen at 35%. Usually, you don’t give someone more than 40% oxygen because that’s not good for the lung,” he said.

He went on to say that problems arise then with legislation. When you want to use oxygen medically for breathing, the oxygen source has to be over 85% oxygen, making PSA an ideal solution, rather than membranes.

Final thoughts on the topic of air gases were granted to Scaramellino, who gave his opinion on where he sees the sector going.

Focusing on what Arencibia is seeing in the market with users of argon and nitrogen, he said, “The burgeoning realisation amongst these is some of the world’s largest manufacturers that they’re sitting on a goldmine that they didn’t know how to mine.”

He added that there’s immense value in what a lot of companies consider waste and it’s just waiting for a way for someone to figure out to extract that gold.

“That’s what our company is really focused on. It’s almost like a slightly delayed version of what’s already happened in the helium market in which, because of the price and scarcity issues, all of a sudden folks are realising that even a 3% stream of helium, a stream with 1% helium is incredibly valuable.”

Scaramellino thinks that companies involved in the argon market are finally starting to see this trend repeating and that a suitable method of extraction is the only barrier.

Both parts of the Air Gases webinar series are available on demand here.