Beyond the backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains and behind the veil of an under-developed Eastern Europe gases business, beats the heartbeat of a company with rare gases in its blood.
Odessa-based Iceblick specialises in the production of rare gases an delivers these products to a tight global market, from its high spec operations in the Ukraine.
Located on the very edge of the Black Sea/the sea of Azov, Iceblick is also on the crest of a wave and celebrating twenty years of high purity production & processing. Back in 1990, the company was founded by a team of specialist researchers operating in the field of cryogenic engineering.
Iceblick has been developing its technical basis ever since then and has seen its capabilities grow ‘considerably’ in the past two decades. Now at a time the gases business in Eastern Europe is really evolving, the company is aiming to expand its production capacity even further. What better time for gasworld to catch up with this youthful, advancing gas company?
Developing its technical basis
Overseeing these huge strides forward is Vitaly Leonidovich Bondarenko, our interviewee of the month and Chairman of the Board of Iceblick Ltd since its inception in 1990.
Bondarenko has seen Iceblick grow in line with the demand for rare gases and establish a firm foothold in the global gas market. He explains, “Iceblick was founded by a team of researchers specialising in the area of cryogenic engineering in 1990. At present, the company employs 285 people and Iceblick makes up the basic part of the International Holding ‘Rare Gases‘ - which incorporates companies from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the US.”
“Rare Gases is one of the leaders in the global market of rare gases, producing 65% of high purity neon (5.0 and 6.0) and 17% of krypton and xenon (5.0 and 6.0).”
“Iceblick has been developing its scientific and technical basis from the first years of its foundation. At present it incorporates industrial enterprises, research laboratories, planning and design offices, together with assembly, production, balancing and commissioning crews.”
“Compared to the early 1990s,” Bondarenko enthuses, “the production volumes of the company have grown considerably: krypton and xenon by seven times; neon by 50 times for example. New plants for the production of gaseous and liquid helium as a by-product of neon manufacture have been designed and put on-stream, as well as new plants for the production of stable neon isotopes by a method of cryogenic rectification.”
From crude to pure
This is a firm footing that Iceblick is keen to build upon, including, we understand, its neon production and manufacture of high purity stable neon isotopes. But before dissecting the company’s future growth prospects, it’s worth understanding the dynamics of rare gas production itself.
It’s a complex process and by volumes, might be described as a lot of work for little gain. Unlike industrial gas production, where sizeable quantities of oxygen and nitrogen might be garnered from an air separation unit (ASU), the volumes of krypton or xenon produced are comparably tiny - although the two processes are intrinsically linked.
Bondarenko tells us, “Air is a source of inert gases production. Large ASUs with the capacity of 1000-3000 tons of oxygen per day, that are equipped with special concentrators and columns, produce crude krypton-xenon mixtures (0.2%-0.3% of Kr+Xe) in oxygen and crude neon helium mixtures (40% of Ne+He) in nitrogen. The equipment for the production of rare gases is usually included in the design of an ASU, although it is possible to modernise an ASU during maintenance. The crude mixtures are later processed into pure products at specially designed plants.”
“Iceblick specialises in the design and operation of the plants that process crude mixtures from ASUs into the finished, pure products. The high purity of the products is ensured by the original technical innovations and strict compliance with the production procedures.”
“The biggest consumers of the products made by Iceblick include the electronics industry, the lighting and laser industries, aerospace, and sectors focusing on the production of insulated glazing units and plasma displays.”
For products that are obtained in such a comparatively small volume and undergo rigorous processes to be transformed from crude to pure, there’s considerably big demand for rare gases.
Consumption from the burgeoning electronics, lighting and laser industries alone is enough to drive demand for xenon, krypton and neon; an appetite that Iceblick is ready to feed.
Rare gases – A growing market
The aforementioned new plants that Iceblick has implemented have clearly elevated its production capacities to a healthy level, yet Bondarenko is confident there’s enough demand to merit further growth.
According to our interviewee, the global market for rare, high purity gases was growing at up to 7% per year before the recession hit. That’s a healthy growth rate by any margin and while the difficult business climate of 2008/9 may have pulled projections sharply into focus, the outlook appears very bright indeed.
“In the years before the recession, the demand for rare gases was growing by 5-7% per year. In accordance with our estimations, the world production of rare gases comprises 130,000 m3/year of krypton, 12,000 m3/year of xenon, and 450,000 m3/year of neon,” he elucidates.
“The main areas of rare gas application are the lighting industry, laser industry, aerospace sector, construction industry (production of insulated glazing units), electronics sector, and medicine/healthcare.”
“There’s no denying that the global economic downturn has had a considerable negative effect on the gases business in Ukraine, and a milder effect in Russia. However, at the end of 2009 the situation looked more optimistic. Under favourable conditions, we expect the restoring of the global demand for inert gases by the middle of 2010.”
While many of the end-user growth drivers Bondarenko refers to might not be considered non-cyclical, with the exception of healthcare, they are clearly all relatively buoyant – Iceblick’s assertion in restored demand this year demonstrates this.
Perhaps what’s key in that last statement for Iceblick though, is the term global demand; up to 95% of the company’s business is export-based. As Bondarenko points out, the domestic market of Ukraine consumes mostly gaseous and liquid helium, while Iceblick is not engaged in either the onsite or packaged gas business in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Instead, it’s very much a case of East meets West as the company focuses on its export business. While production and processing may be derived from its base in Ukraine, it’s a global business for Iceblick. With the complexities that a global enterprise undoubtedly brings, the Odessa-based company cites the operation of both a gases service and an engineering solutions division as an invaluable asset.
Bondarenko also holds up Iceblick’s ability to produce big volumes of high purity gases at a controlled concentration as a unique selling point, or ‘distinguished feather’. He said, “The production of big volumes of high purity inert gases (99,9999% or higher) with a controlled (on-demand) isotopic concentration is a distinguished feather for Iceblick.”
“Both segments (gases & engineering) undoubtedly complement each other, since expanding the production of the gases is based on our own know-how and engineering solutions introduced at large metallurgical and chemical plants, using gaseous oxygen and nitrogen from ASUs with a capacity of 1000-3000 tons of oxygen per day.”
With its global reputation well established and now two decades of successful service to back this up, one could suggest that Iceblick is already approaching the next stage of its development.
Compared to some other illustrious names in the industrial & specialty gases business, the company is still in its infancy; at such a crossroads or period in its history, a company’s next move can be so important to its route forward.
So what’s next? What does the future hold for Iceblick? Just as the development of newer, modern technologies is integral to the ageing infrastructure of the East Europe gases business as a whole in the future, gasworld understands that new equipment & technology could also be on the agenda for Iceblick in the years to come.
“In 2009 Iceblick modernised the production of rare gases at Nizhnetagilsky Metallurgical Plant (Russia), Zaporozhstal Metallurgical Plant (Ukraine), and the production association ‘Azot’ (Severodonetsk, Ukraine). In 2010 we are planning to further expand our neon production and the production of high purity stable neon isotopes,” said Bondarenko.
“In the rare gases market, Iceblick does not yield to the major players in regard to the quality and volumes of production, and in some cases, considerably surpasses them,” he adds.
“We are hoping to continue our development mainly on the basis of introducing new technologies of in the area of super high purity gases production, and with the expansion of crude sources at the new, highly productive ASUs.”