Industrial gas demand fuelled by traditional and new markets

Paul Boughton
Demands from traditional markets, including steel making, and the emergence of new markets such as biofuels are ensuring that the demand remains high for industrial gases.

According to a study by The Freedonia Group, demand for industrial gases in the US alone will reach US$23.5b by 2013. Worldwide that figure is expected to go beyond US$40b. With new opportunities emerging in the biofuel sector and ongoing investment in large projects in the Far East, demand is certainly robust.

For example, AirLiquide has just signed another major long-term contract in the steel industry in China. It will invest about EUR40 million in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province (northeastern China), 350km north of Harbin, Heilongjiang's capital city, to supply Xilin Steel Group, a new customer, with oxygen, nitrogen and argon.

A 1200t/d air separation unit (ASU) will be designed and built by AirLiquide Hangzhou, the engineering teams of AirLiquide in China, and will be commissioned in the first quarter of 2012.

Over 40 years, Xilin Steel has become the largest iron and steel producer -and the biggest private enterprise - in Heilongjiang province. It has grown while rationalising and modernising its production facility, so as to become the most profitable iron and steel enterprise in the whole of north-eastern China.

Meanwhile the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) is launching the first phase of a project to build a biomass conversion pilot unit that will transform agricultural and forestry residues into second generation biofuel, in Bure Saudron, which is located 80km from Nancy in northeastern France. The CNIM group (Constructions Industrielles de la Méditerranée) will be the project's general contractor. AirLiquide, a partner on this project, will be supplying key technologies needed to transform synthesis gas into biofuel.

AirLiquide Engineering and Construction teams (notably through its subsidiary Lurgi) are responsible for coordinating some of the technical engineering operations and process steps downstream, from gasification through final biofuel upgrading. AirLiquide will also provide oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is a required component of the gasification process, and hydrogen is used to enhance the quantity and quality of the synthetic fuel produced.

The demonstration unit, which combines in a single facility all of the various second generation biofuel production elements, will be the first production unit of this kind in France.

Business is good for Praxair too, and the company has just signed a contract with ExxonMobil to build, own and operate an ASU to supply additional nitrogen for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations at ExxonMobil's Hawkins gas processing plant site in Texas.

Under the new contract, Praxair will install a new production facility to meet ExxonMobil's requirements for nitrogen. Operations from the new supply network are scheduled for start-up in the second half of 2011. Praxair will produce 85m ft3/d of high-pressure nitrogen and additional quantities of liquid argon.

ExxonMobil currently uses Praxair's nitrogen gas to increase the amount of oil recovered from its Hawkins plant. ExxonMobil will utilise additional nitrogen to help them recover more oil and natural gas reserves.

In a separate deal and under a 15-year agreement, Praxair China will build a nitrogen plant and integrate its patented direct-injection technology at Marcegalia's new steel-tube mill in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. The mill will produce 350,000 t/y of stainless, carbon precision and cold drawn steel tubes used in the construction, appliance, engineering-component and energy markets. Phase one of the project is scheduled to start up in June 2010 and phase two in 2011.

Praxair's plant will have a capacity of about 100 t/d of nitrogen. Praxair's direct-injection technology uses the nitrogen, together with fuel gas, to generate a precise atmosphere during the heat-treating phase of steel production, resulting in enhanced product quality. Currently, Praxair's direct-injection technology is operating successfully at a Marcegaglia mill in Italy.

"This project demonstrates how Praxair is able to transfer world-class technology around the globe for the benefit of our customers," said Joe Cappello, president of Praxair Asia.

In the US, Airgas has opened its new industrial, medical and specialty gas facility and hard goods store in Harvey, Los Angeles, to meet demand for cylinder gases in the region. Airgas is the largest US distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases, and related hard goods, such as welding equipment and supplies.

The 26,000 ft2 facility sits on approximately four acres and fills cylinders with oxygen, nitrogen, argon, CO2, helium, propane, propylene, as well as pure specialty gas grades of nitrogen, argon, helium and oxygen.

The company has also signed a supply agreement with Utilities Service Alliance (USA). Based in Overland Park, Kansas, USA is a non-profit cooperative of 15 electric utilities that operate 17 nuclear power stations across the country. Airgas will provide 15 US-member nuclear power plants with industrial gases, specialty gases, liquid dewars, safety products and welding hardgoods. The five-year agreement, with estimated annual sales of US$6 million, is part of the Airgas strategic accounts programme established specifically for multi-location customers who benefit from sole-source supply and supply chain management services.

Also in the US, Linde North America has announced that it has completed the integration of Spectra Gases into its electronics and speciality gases business.

The integration of Spectra's high-end line of specialty gases, chemicals, isotopic gases and fluorine-based mixtures for niche and critical applications complements Linde's broader range of offerings across the balance of packaged gases products and applications (Fig. 1). "With this integration Linde now offers customers the most comprehensive line of packaged gas products and services in the industry," said Cliff Caldwell, vice president for Linde's electronics and specialty gases business in North America.

Linde's electronics and specialty gases business is a leading global supplier of a wide array of products and services, ranging from rare gases and calibration gases in the parts per billion to electronic process gases such as hydrogen chloride, sulphur hexafluoride, silane and halothanes. Industries served include medicine, scientific research, fibre optics, semiconductor manufacturing, environmental testing and compliance, laser applications, homeland security and lighting.

"Linde's ability to produce and purify rare and electronic process gases provides the high quality, security of supply and lower cost of ownership that is critically important in today's highly competitive global marketplace," added Caldwell.

Finally, Air Products' latest move is the signing of a contract with SK Energy to construct a hydrogen fuelling station for a novel energy project to be based in World Cup Park in Seoul, South Korea. The station is due on-stream in July and will supply hydrogen produced solely from landfill gas to fuel a fleet of vehicles.

The project is part of Seoul's push to use alternative supply means to generate 10 per cent of its energy consumption by 2020, and to use hydrogen for 30 per cent of the switch. "This is a very innovative project with high goals and we are proud to be part of this plan and to work with SK Energy, which is a leading Korean company in hydrogen reforming technology," said Bob Kelly, business development manager for hydrogen energy systems at Air Products. "Processing a waste stream to make hydrogen for use as an alternative fuel is a direction Air Products, together with its customers, is pursuing to take advantage of underutilised hydrogen sources."

Kelly noted this will be Air Products' sixth hydrogen fuelling station in South Korea. The company has already placed over 110 hydrogen fuelling stations in the US and 18 countries worldwide.Cars, trucks, vans, buses, scooters, forklifts, locomotives, planes, cell towers, material handling equipment, and even submarines are currently being fuelled using technology.