The concept of a nitrogen economy appears to be gathering momentum as a sustainable solution in the crossroads of energy security. For the industrial gases business, gasworld understands, this is something that cannot be ignored.

The notion of the nitrogen economy is, in some quarters, considered to be a more viable alternative to the much-discussed hydrogen economy, which has been beset by so many technical challenges.

Two companies are pioneering the use of liquid air as an energy vector - Highview Power Storage (Highview) and Dearman Engine Company - and with its potential as a sustainable solution, it’s a concept that has been making headlines in both industry press and mainstream media alike.

This buzz was taken to even greater heights in October with the launch of the Liquid Air Energy Group.

Academics, policy makers, industry bodies and developers all discussed the idea and the opportunity for liquid air at the launch in October, and this gained further traction recently as Highview won the Sustainability Award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Innovation Awards.

If this multi-faceted concept takes off as hoped, then nitrogen could not only help to decarbonise energy supply, but could also be the stimulus for an even more prosperous industrial gases business.

This is something that is already clearly on the radar for the industrial gas community, with the July 2012 announcement that Highviewand the Messer Group had entered a strategic partnership agreement towards the commercial realisation of Highview’s energy storage technology.

And it is not just Messer that recognises both the significance of this technology for the gases industry and its potential for the energy sector as a whole; speaking during our interview in Paris recently, Air Liquide’s Vice-President of R&D, Olivier Delabroy, described it as ‘clearly our territory’ and something ‘we cannot ignore’.

“Let’s map it, let’s monitor it. Using our unique vantage point, let’s detect what is the trigger factor, when we need to be active on it, and when the technology is mature.. It’s a concept that we are carefully looking at,” he explained.

But in many respects it is likely to be a waiting game for the gases industry, dependent on the ‘trigger’ that could take it from concept to reality.

Trigger factor

Delabroy explained that Air Liquide already utilises liquid air for energy storage in some of its air separation plants and associated liquefaction units, using it to leverage the price differences between peak and off-peak consumption.

This, he clarifies, is something the company does because it is easy to integrate and exploit.

Taking the technology beyond this kind of usage, however, and into deployment as an energy vector in its own right, is something that requires more planning.

“I think that you have to compare with alternative technologies,” said Delabroy. “Today we are carefully looking at that, the key factor or indicator is of course the spread of electricity that you have between the maximum daily price and the minimum. The higher the optimum that the peak and off-peak is, the more economical this technology can be and obviously the current energy-electricity spread is going to increase maybe drastically with the development of renewables.”

Complexities aside, Delabroy is in no doubt about the significance of the liquid air concept for the gases industry.

“This is a typical example that requests mapping of technologies and ecosystem, key stakeholders identification, maturity level, and definition of key indicators needing action, he concluded. ”It is in our territory and we cannot overlook it.”