Air Products seeks sustainability solutions

Green is in the air

13 January 2009 18:05  [Source: ICB]

Air Products seeks to power its sustainability strategy with innovative solutions

WHEN YOU think of "green," industrial gases hardly comes to the forefront. But to enable the development of energy-efficient products and sustainable energy sources, gases derived from air are a vital component.

"When we think about sustainability, we first focus on what's happening in terms of energy costs and the impact of climate change, which is having a negative impact on standards of living," says Norma Curby, vice president of strategic planning and head of the Sustainability Council at US-based industrial gases firm Air Products. "Then we look for solutions that are economically viable."

Air Products puts its sustainability strategy into three buckets - energy efficiency, clean energy and technologies, and alternative energy. The company estimates around 65% of its $10.4bn (€7.4bn) in annual sales comes from these areas.

On the energy efficiency front, the company seeks to improve results internally as well as for its customers. Air Products' own goal calls for a reduction in power consumption intensity by 5-10% by 2015 through more-efficient processes and waste reduction.

For customers, Air Products provides bulk gases such as oxygen, argon and nitrogen to make operations run more efficiently in steel and glass manufacturing, food freezing and petroleum refining. The company is also developing new technologies that help customers meet their sustainability goals.

In December, Air Products announced that its HiPOx ozone-based advanced oxidation process water treatment technology had been conditionally accepted by the California Department of Public Health to treat wastewater and make it available for reuse.

In the clean energy and technologies category, Air Products has the capability to provide oxygen to enhance coal combustion for power plants. The company is also developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions.

Air Products has pilot-scale CCS demonstration facilities in Renfrew, UK, and is working on developmental projects in the US and Alberta, Canada.

"We have proprietary technology in this area, where we can capture CO2 cost-effectively," says Curby. "We're now working on scaling it up. Optimistically, we'd achieve commercial scale in five years."

In alternative energy, Air Products is a player in photovoltaics (PVs) and hydrogen for fuel cells.

The company provides gases and materials for the production of PVs, where it is seeing annual growth rates of around 30%.

Last December, the company agreed to provide gases to China's Best Solar Hi Tech, which is building a new thin-film PV facility in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

"When you look at solar, wind and geothermal energy, what all of these have in common is that they're intermittent. They're not available 24/7," Curby points out. "So the question is: How do you capture the energy from these sources?"

The answer, says Curby, is hydrogen.

"The hydrogen molecule is light, available through many different sources and clean," she says. "If you use hydrogen in fuel cells, what you get at the end of the process is simply electricity, heat and water. The challenge is to generate and move large volumes of hydrogen from these multiple sources. We believe pipelines best serve this function."

Air Products continues to work with the state of California to move large volumes of hydrogen for the next generation of vehicles.

"The NASA space shuttle has been powered by hydrogen for 30 years, and aspects of that technology are being used in cars," notes Curby.

Air Products views hydrogen fuel cell technology as compatible with hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), which could be hitting the road en force in the US in 2010. The company sees fuel cells ultimately replacing the internal combustion engine.

"One of the limitations of HEVs is that they have limited battery storage capacity," says Curby. "One way to improve the availability of energy capacity in HEVs is through the use hydrogen fuel cells."

The battery powering the HEV would be able to replenish its energy from the hydrogen fuel cell. The fuel cell itself would be supplied with hydrogen from a fueling station much like gasoline is today.

For now, Air Products is focusing on applications such as buses and forklifts that will help the transition to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In August 2008, the company supplied hydrogen fueling for a US hydrogen road tour of cars powered by fuel cells.

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By: Joseph Chang
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