When the German physics professor Carl von Linde erected the first air separation plant near Munich in 1902 he did not enjoy the advantage of any off-the-shelf components or standardised modules; instead, each part was custom made ‘in-house’.

Despite this disadvantage it was not long before the rate of oxygen extraction approached 1000 cu ft per hour. This was the start of a long-term growth trend in the demand for atmospheric gases that continues to average around 5% per annum, even in mature markets.

During the past century, first in the industrialised countries and more recently across developing industries like Malaysia, China and India, an impressive network of equipment manufacturers has evolved around the gas industry.

These companies now provide equipment ranges that have been optimised for industrial gas service, are made from materials that are suitable for operating under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure, and are designed to provide long maintenance free service. Quality assurance is of paramount importance in the production of all gas distribution equipment and almost without exception manufacturers are ISO 9001 accredited.

Range of equipment
The earliest gas distribution equipment to be manufactured to standard specifications by a specialist company were valves, when Herose was founded in 1873, and the next were high pressure steel cylinders.

In 1886, German brothers Max and Reinhard Mannesmann developed a production method for manufacturing seamless steel tubes by extrusion, and their method was soon adapted to the manufacture of gas cylinders. The introduction of ammonia cycle refrigeration in the late 1800’s created the earliest demand for steel cylinders, followed by the development of a safe method to transport dissolved acetylene gas in steel cylinders.

Ironically the vapour pressure of these gases in the liquid state at ambient temperatures is relatively low and today both are routinely stored in fabricated cylinders with welded seams. Four companies commenced manufacturing seamless steel cylinders around the turn of the 19th century; Chesterfield of the UK in 1897, Harrisburg Steel (Taylor Wharton) of the US in 1902, Vitkovice of the Czech Republic in 1906 and Mannesmann of Germany in 1911.

The fuel price shock during the 1970’s highlighted the need to reduce the cost of gas distribution. This motivated the development of aluminium cylinders, with 30% lower mass than the equivalent steel ones, and ultra high pressure steel cylinders rated up to 400 atmospheres were developed jointly by Taylor Wharton and the Linde division of Union Carbide in 1985, to double the normal storage capacity.

Distribution equipment is available today for every conceivable aspect of gas handling, compression, liquid pumping, storage, pressure regulation, vaporisation, liquefaction, purification, analysis, flow-control and metering.

In addition there are companies producing low temperature equipment for liquid nitrogen chilling and freezing, burners for oxy-fuel firing of furnaces, cylinder filling and transfer systems and even cold boxes for air separation.

The range of equipment also includes storage and transport containers to service the entire supply chain, from primary gas producers through to end users, and includes every possible mode of transport; by road, rail, sea and air. Rigid tankers, semi-trailer tankers, ISO containers, Swap bodies, Demountable tanks, mini-bulk tankers, portable cryogenic liquid storage tanks and bundled cylinder packs, are examples of the modes of supply now available.

Demand cycles
The high standards of safety required by the industrial gas industry imply that gas equipment is very durable and therefore capable of very long service.

The ongoing and growing demand for gas equipment is driven by overall growth in demand for industrial gases either through growing consumption by existing users, additional demand by new operators, or new demand created by new applications.

It then follows that the strongest markets for gas distribution equipment are in countries experiencing rapid industrial development.

The drivers for globalisation in the market for distribution equipment are similar to many other industries. Stagnant or declining domestic demand for many products in the industrialised west have forced established manufacturers to depend increasingly on export sales to emerging markets in the east.

Many of these have found that by establishing production plants in the developing countries of Asia, more flexible labour markets provide an opportunity to reduce manufacturing costs and also reduce the freight distance to expected growth markets.

Cryolor, a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Liquide with 50 years in the design and manufacture of vacuum insulated cryogenic storage and distribution vessels, has almost completed the setting up of its first manufacturing facility outside of France. Located just south of Chennai, India, it is planned to start production in July 2010.

According to Cryolor Asia Pacific Project Manager; Olivier Riboulet, 300 cryogenic tanks will be manufactured in phase one and half of these will be exported to West and South East Asia.

Meanwhile, the Inox Group of India recently acquired the controlling interest in US based Cryogenic Vessel Alternatives (CVA), with manufacturing and repair facilities in Texas, and activities across Canada, China and Turkey.

Inox, which already supplies the major gas companies worldwide and anticipates gaining a larger share of Western markets, now claims to be the second largest company offering cryogenic storage and distribution products globally.

Market performance & future prospects
The worldwide recession that bottomed out during 2009 affected the demand for industrial gases very significantly in most markets, with the steepest fall of over 50% being the demand for Electronics special gases, although it recovered as quickly as it fell.

The demand for oxygen by large industries dipped by over 30%, while the demand for bulk hydrogen only fell by 20%, and these markets have already rebounded to around 2008 average levels.

The effect of these markets on the demand for distribution equipment would be less than the merchant market for liquid bulk and cylinder gases, where the fall in demand was around 22% and 28% respectively, and recovery is progressing far slower in these sectors.

The demand for energy is expected to grow by 40% during the next two decades and those companies supplying equipment to energy related applications have benefitted.