The next few years are likely to be exciting times for the industrial gases industry, which after suffering the first contraction during 2009 since before 1980, is expected to exceed its 2008 gross earnings this year by over 5%.
Future annual compound growth is expected to average close to 10% through until 2015. The Asia-Pacific region is expected to continue reporting the fastest growth.
Five drivers will motivate the development of new technologies and stimulate demand for industrial gases:
1. Increasing demand for energy and escalating prices.
2. More onerous environmental regulations.
3. Fiscal inducements to limit carbon emissions.
4. Rapid industrialisation of emerging economies.
5. Decreasing cost of renewable energy.
Applications emerging in the chemical/petrochemical segment
The demand for hydrogen for refining increasingly sour and heavy grades of crude oil into low sulphur fuels is expected to race ahead of the highest compounded growth rate during the next five year period.
This will ensure that this sector remains the largest earning application segment because a considerable share of this incremental hydrogen will be supplied by the merchant producers of the gas. After suffering a massive 13% decline in 2009, this segment is expected to account for 40% of the industry’s turnover by 2014.
The near universal dependence of transportation on liquid fuels ensures that as Euro emissions standards are adopted by developing countries and increased disposable income boosts the demand for private vehicles, this requires the robust expansion of refinery capacity in places like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, India, China and Africa.
Similarly, a suite of oxygen applications developed as low capital options for achieving increased productivity – and reduced emissions are likely to be implemented in many cases. Enrichment in sulphur recovery units, oxy-fuel technology for process heaters, fluidised catalytic cracking and oxygen enhanced steam methane reforming (SMR) will combine to generate significant additional demand for oxygen.
In order to minimise dependence on - and the cost of - imported crude oil, countries with major domestic coal reserves including the US and China will follow the route pioneered by South Africa by developing synfuel conversion plants, known to be extremely large consumers of oxygen.
Emerging separation technology using ceramic oxygen transport membranes are likely to find application because of their potential to provide the volumes required at previously unattainable low cost levels.
Applications emerging in the metals/fabrication segment
The iron and steel industry is really where the demand for oxygen first created opportunities for captive or over-the-fence gas supply installations, a concept first pioneered by Leonard P Poole, the founder of Air Products.
Despite the claim that this industry has already reduced its specific energy consumption by over 50% during the past four decades, it is believed that blast furnace capacity is still underutilised. It has been demonstrated that using higher oxygen enrichment rates allows increased productivity and low coke rates to be simultaneously maintained, as this allows a 50% and greater increase in the rate of pulverised coal injection.
Over the next 10-20 years it can be expected that the blast furnaces will develop from single-product (hot metal) to two-product (hot metal and gas) production facilities. While the oxygen intensity per tonne of hot metal may increase 300%, the power available for export could increase by 400% per tonne and the calorific value of top gas produced could almost double.
The clean burning characteristics and potential for high efficiency of natural gas fuelled turbine engines have prompted their widespread installation for electric power generation. This, coupled with increases in air freight and passenger traffic, means that the number of gas turbine engines in service now exceeds 125MW of total capacity and is growing rapidly.
Surface coating technologies that increase corrosion/oxidation resistance or improve thermal barrier properties have been developed that extend the overhaul intervals of these engines and enhance their fuel efficiency. The gas industry will be expected to provide hydrogen, nitrogen and argon to support the manufacture and application of a range of coating materials.
Applications emerging in the electronics segment
The growth impetus in the manufacture of electronic devices can probably be attributed to the invention of the electronic calculator in the early 1970s. A decade later the personal computer (PC) was gaining recognition beyond that of a hobby for geeks and finding applications as a business tool.
Next there came notebook PC’s with liquid crystal displays, cellphones, flat-screen monitors and televisions sets. Photography abandoned chemical image storage in favour of electronic media, audio and video tapes were replaced by solid state memory.
Communication systems no longer send electrical impulses along copper phone lines, but depend instead on networks of microwave signals bounced off satellites orbiting in space and light signals distributed by optical fibre cables. Portable multimedia devices with touch screen user interface have proliferated and roadmaps are now navigation systems that reference the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Lasers that started life as imaginary weapons and later produced weird light shows, soon became high-speed, super accurate cutting devices deployed in the fabrication of metal components.
Now, gas lasers are being replaced by solid-state laser devices that are compact, energy efficient and more productive.
The industrial and special gases industry has played an enabling role by producing, supplying and dispensing carrier gases nitrogen, argon and helium that meet ever more stringent specifications for purity and freedom from particulate contaminants. Silane and exotic doping gases are needed in the manufacture of semiconductors and photovoltaic modules. Ultra-high purity gases, calibration standards, multipart gas mixtures, process gases and supply systems are some of the expanding range of products and services that have evolved.
The operation of large cryogenic air separation plants not only produces the popular major atmospheric gases nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide, but it is also possible through multiple distillation steps, to isolate the four other members of the noble gas group: helium, neon, xenon and krypton. These are often named the rare gases because their concentration in air is minute: about one volume of neon is recovered from 81,000 volumes of air; one volume of helium in 245,000; no more than one part of krypton by volume can be separated from 20,000,000, of air; and of xenon not more than one part in 170,000,000 volumes.
Today the production and supply of specialty gases is a global business supporting a broad range of technology driven market applications. Halogen light sources now popular in motor vehicles depend on xenon and modern low energy lighting requires krypton. Insulated window panels, propulsion systems, leak detection and special purpose lasers are among the products made with rare gases.
Applications emerging in the medical and healthcare segment
After oxygen for life support, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was perhaps the most significant gas dependant technology and the resulting demand for helium certainly challenged the industry’s supply capabilities as MRI scanners were installed across the world.
Anaesthesia, life science research, cryogenic preservation, hyperbaric therapy and laser surgery have all raised new challenges.
Today the need to raise productivity in the manufacture of conventional drugs and the emergence of biologic-based pharmaceuticals are the driving forces that will stretch gas supplier’s resources further, as production facilities move to locations in Asia in search of more flexible markets for skilled labour.
Applications emerging in the food processing segment
Gas applications that increase customer yield, production and quality have been developed in all segments of food and beverage processing.
Technologies include freezing or chilling; hydrogenation; oxygenation; packaging; carbonation; blanketing and purging; stripping and deodorisation; sanitising; water treatment; and atmosphere control.
This is a global growth opportunity driven by the rapid industrialisation of Asian, African and South American countries. The pattern of increased per capita spending on food products when disposable income rises has been recognised in many places and certainly these emerging markets will provide strong growth in the $4 trillion global food industry during the near term future.
As food resources come under strain from the predicted population growth, innovations that raise output and productivity, while reducing wastage, will be in demand.
Carbon dioxide will be supplied in growing volumes to accelerate the growth of crops in greenhouses; aquaculture will depend increasingly on oxygen enrichment to raise the output of protein-rich fish and seafoods. Broiler farmers will apply oxygen enrichment, especially in high altitude locations, to increase the survival rate of hatchlings.
Research indicates that killing broilers in a controlled gas atmosphere could be accepted as the optimal process if processors are made aware of its economic benefits.
In most countries regulations require that only high quality ISO certified products are acceptable for processing and packaging of foods. Gas companies therefore will be faced with the challenge of implementing Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and seeking accreditation for the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP SYSTEM).
An alternative non-food use of agricultural products is the production of biofuels. Biofuels are liquid or gaseous fuel produced from biodegradable substances. First generation biofuels are ‘conventional’ fuels typically created by extraction, fermentation, esterification or digestion and these include vegetable oil, biodiesel, bioethanol or upgraded biogas.
Second generation fuels are created by thermochemical conversion processes like gasification or synthesis of such as hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, dimethyl ether (DME) or biomass-to-liquid (BTL) diesel.
Industrial gases are likely to find application in cell culture fermentation, process optimisation, reactor cooling, freeze drying and the control of volatile organic compounds.
Applications in the pulp & paper segment
Application developments in this segment will continue to be driven by the need to reduce the impact that these mammoth operations have on the environment and to improve profitability by recovering additional substances from waste water effluent, enhancing both output and quality and by developing new product streams.
It is quite possible that pulp mills could become consistent exporters of energy and so boost the contribution of renewables to the energy mix.
Applications emerging in other segments
Electric power generation driven by the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation will grow faster than any other primary energy demand in the foreseeable future, it is thought.
Coal-fired steam turbines already dominate this sector and while many developed countries have converted to cleaner natural gas engines, simple economics and the need for energy independence will compel many countries to prefer their domestic coal reserves.
As a result the emissions from coal combustion will undoubtedly be the largest opportunity for the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide.
Capturing carbon dioxide is greatly simplified if the flue gases can be concentrated and by eliminating the nitrogen content, oxy-fuel combustion is accepted as the logical first step. The industrial gas industry has achieved hefty reductions in the cost per tonne of pure oxygen using conventional air separation technologies as the average plant size grew, but here we are facing a potential demand so large that new separation technology is a pre-requisite.
Major research and investment has been devoted to the development of Oxygen Transport Membrane (OTM) systems that enable oxygen separation either from air or any gas stream including refinery waste streams, as well as synthesis gas derived from natural gas, liquid hydrocarbons, petroleum coke and biomass.
These membranes can be combined with catalysts to perform a variety of oxidative reactions, including the production of synthesis gas, and is also ideal for natural gas Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle applications.
OTM’s coupled with fluidised bed combustion and using much of the same technology may be applied to pulverised coal feeds, except with the added complications of dealing with abrasion effects from the solids as well as handling coal ash and slag. For such coal-fired power plants with carbon dioxide capture and no flue stack, emitting combustion products consisting mainly of water, could mitigate the predicted climate change crisis. Pollutants like nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulphur oxides being absorbed in the liquid carbon dioxide stream would enable zero-emission generation systems.
Other membranes with essentially 100% selectivity to hydrogen designed to operate at the same conditions as high-temperature water-gas shift reactors have also been developed, enabling efficient low cost separation of hydrogen and carbon dioxide from synthesis gas streams to facilitate carbon sequestration while producing high purity H2 for turbines, fuel cells, and generator cooling, for example.
Oxy-fuel combustion is a mature technology applicable in multiple industries including the production of construction materials like glass, steel, aluminium and cement as well as for waste incineration, biomass gasification, refinery and chemical processes, activated carbon production and blast furnace injection. An estimated 25% of potential applications have already converted to oxy-fuel motivated by significantly lower specific fuel consumption and reduced emissions.
Ongoing development and new innovations will continue to find compatible environments in greenfield and retro-fit operations.