The air separation plant also known as air separation unit market is steadily attracting attention in the chemical industry owing to a number of essential applications. For instance, the burgeoning demand for mass amounts of oxygen in coal gasification projects and steel manufacturing and the vast nitrogen requirement for chemical storage tanks, storing petroleum products, packing edible oils to protect them from oxidation. Air separation plants are used to separate atmospheric air into its basic components, which are primarily nitrogen and oxygen, along with argon and other rare gases. There are two types of separation plants for this purpose, i.e. cryogenic air separation plants and non-cryogenic air separation plants.
Cryogenic air separation plants apply a low-temperature rectification process (using the difference between the boiling points of nitrogen, oxygen and argon to separate and purify these products). The key evaluation criteria used by manufacturers for the selection of cryogenic air separation plant technology are capital and operating expenditure, maintenance cost, ease of operation, plant and component reliability, process control features and safety, health, environment and quality standards. Apart from these factors, the history of projects carried out by the technology provider are also taken in account.
To meet the demand for nitrogen and oxygen from smaller consumers, non-cryogenic air separation plants are economically more attractive than cryogenic units as they incur lower construction and power consumption costs, although they have a relatively lower energy efficiency. These air separation plant types run at ambient conditions and are relatively small in scale. They are easy to start-up once they are installed. Non-cryogenic air separation plants use differences in the physical properties of nitrogen and oxygen, such as molecular structure, size and mass to separate nitrogen and oxygen. Non-cryogenic technology applications are: pressure swing adsorption technique used to produce either nitrogen or oxygen, vacuum pressure swing adsorption technique used to produce oxygen and membrane separation technique used to produce nitrogen. It has been found that non-cryogenic plants display compactness and yield nitrogen with the purity range between 95.5 % to 99.5 % and oxygen with the purity range between 90 % and 95.5 %.
In case of pressure swing adsorption technology in non-cryogenic air separation plants, compressed air is processed to obtain desired products, whereas in the case of vacuum pressure swing adsorption technique in non-cryogenic air separation plants, vacuum pumps are applied to decrease the desorption pressure. In the case of membrane separation technology in non-cryogenic air separation plants, the technology concept used to separate gases is that different permeation rates are displayed by different gases through a polymer film.
It has been observed that massive amounts of steel consumption and developments in the chemical industry in developing countries (to improve infrastructure) has been driving and will continue to drive demand for nitrogen and oxygen, thereby driving growth for the global air separation plant market.
There has been a strong preference for the use of pure oxygen over ambient air to burn coal or natural gas in power stations to promote clean technology initiatives and curb pollution worldwide. This requires large quantities of pure oxygen as a raw material, which in turn is expected to drive the global air separation plant market in the near future.
Nitrogen blanketing application requirements in the chemical and petroleum industry have been driving demand for nitrogen, which is expected to propel the demand for air separation plants worldwide.
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The anticipated rise in demand for argon due to its increasing usage in applications such as the electronic and food industry is also expected to drive the global demand for air separation plants.