Manufacturing – it’s a gas, gas, gas

Posted on 22 Mar 2024 by Joe Bush

The typical vision of a manufacturing process is perhaps that of a traditional production line incorporating several integral processes, before a final physical product emerges at the end. What we perhaps don’t think about is the fact that there are still products vital to our everyday lives that we can’t pick up, touch and in some cases, can’t even see. However, they still need to be manufactured.

Suzanne Lowe is Vice President, Air Products – UK & Ireland, Italy and Israel. Air Products is a global industrial gas manufacturer which operates in over 50 countries and employs 1,500 people in the UK. The company supports sectors including heavy industry, automotive, healthcare, food and leisure. And its customers range from major brands and charities such as Saint Gobain and Anthony Nolan, to smaller SMEs. The Manufacturer caught up with Suzanne to find out more.

Can you tell us more about Air Products and gas manufacturing?

SL: We essentially manufacture and package gas such as oxygen, nitrogen, argon, hydrogen and helium. From an application perspective we supply oxygen to hospitals to be used in patient recovery and for those with breathing difficulties. In addition, we supply helium to be used in MRI scanners.

Moving to the world of leisure and food and drink, we also provide CO2 and nitrogen to be used in beer in the brewing sector, and we also provide nitrogen to the food packaging industry to help keep food fresh and free of bacteria.

Air Products
Suzanne Lowe is Vice President, Air Products – UK & Ireland, Italy and Israel

Those are easy examples that we can all relate to in our day-to-day lives but in the background, we’re also using our gases and products in the petrochemical industry to keep plants and refining locations safe, in furnaces for metal processing, and our cylinder products are used in cutting and welding.

In terms of how the gases are made, we use air separation units which take the air we breathe and separate it into its different components – oxygen, nitrogen and a very small dose of argon.

Manufacturing in an air separation unit gives us a variety of methods of getting it to our customers. We can use a pipeline for large volumes, which we call the tonnage business. We can also liquefy the products in their separate components, and put it into road tankers. Another is we can take those road tankers to our package gas facilities where the gas is put into smaller size cylinders where they are mixed with other gases. It can then be taken to collection points for customers or it can be delivered directly to point of use.

A particular product that’s core to us is hydrogen; it’s profile is rising all the time as people begin to see it as a future fuel. However, we’re not a company that’s new to this market – we were formed in 1940 in the US, and we’ve been in the UK for over 60 years.

We’ve been involved in hydrogen, triggered by the request for NASA to have it as a fuel gas, since the 1960s. The difference now is the gas is starting to be delivered to a daily market because of the growing need for sustainable fuels. There’s a huge amount of interest, and the level of investment opportunity has really taken a step change globally. But for me, it’s quite exciting to see this opportunity also being created in the UK.

Will hydrogen be the key growth area for Air Products?

Hydrogen is probably the most plentiful chemical on the planet. It’s in the atmosphere all around us, however, it’s not in its purest form. For example, one source of hydrogen is found in methane gas and we extract it through steam methane reforming or autothermal reformers to manufacture hydrogen from natural gas.

Another source of hydrogen, which is far more renewable, is water. If you pass electricity through water, it will separate into its oxygen and hydrogen components. This method of generating hydrogen, called electrolysis, is something we’re quite passionate about.

Air Products
Air Products develops, builds, owns and operates some of the world’s largest industrial gas and carbon-capture projects, supplying clean hydrogen worldwide for transportation, industrial markets, and the broader energy transition

We’re investing heavily in renewable fuels – a $15bn global commitment by 2027. For example, we have a hydrogen project running in Saudi Arabia using the solar and wind resources available.

This project is enabling us to bring renewable fuel in the form of ammonia into Europe. And we’re in the midst of a project in Immingham in the Humber – our Immingham Green Energy Terminal. That plant will then process the ammonia into hydrogen, and we’re working closely with Associated British Ports to achieve this.

From a sustainability standpoint it’s the equivalent of being able to fuel 20,000 diesel trucks with hydrogen. That would have quite an impact on how much CO2 we remove from the atmosphere, so it’s an amazing opportunity.

The government has identified Immingham as a top priority area for ‘levelling up’ via investment and growth, and we plan to build and run this new green hydrogen production facility at Immingham, together with a downstream delivery network.

Parallel to that we also have the Humber Hydrogen Project which is focused on blue hydrogen. What many people may not realise is that there are different types of hydrogen and each has a different impact on the environment. Most of the hydrogen currently on the market today is what we call ‘grey’. This is made from natural gas and when it’s produced it emits carbon.

While natural gas is still the source of ‘blue’ hydrogen, in the same way as it is with grey, it differs in that the CO2 is captured at point of use rather than being emitted into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen and carbon elements can be separated out.

However, don’t be fooled. The hydrogen molecule has no clue what colour it is. This is about recognising the impact on the environment, and making sure we really step up as a society to enhance our green credentials.

Hydrogen is without doubt one of our key growth areas. In many ways it always has been, but in recent years interest has been heightened due to the need to make it a sustainable and green renewable fuel. So, there will definitely be more investment in this area and across the UK, there’s likely to be a real step change in hydrogen production.

More opportunities are presenting themselves all the time, and in terms of the transport sector,  hydrogen is now very much part of the discussion when talking about the future of heavy goods vehicles, marine transport and in some instances, trains.

However, buses has been one of the first sectors to really make a move – grasping the opportunity to be either electric or renewably fueled, which is where hydrogen comes in. And companies are choosing both depending on the local demand.

We’re working with The Go Ahead Group where we have a 15-year hydrogen supply deal to power a fleet of fuel cell buses for deployment in the Gatwick Airport, Crawley and Horley area.

What other projects are ongoing?

Along with the Immingham Green Energy Terminal and the Blue Hydrogen Project, we’re also investing in a new air separation unit in Alloa in Scotland. Bringing new investment into the area, the proposed plant will separate air into oxygen, nitrogen and argon that will support world-leading glass container manufacturer, Owens Illinois (O-I).

It will also serve the needs of hospitals and local manufacturing companies serving industries such as food and beverage, metal and welding. The project will create up to 100 jobs during its construction and ten permanent jobs once it becomes operational, as well as a number of apprenticeship training programmes.

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