Oxygen - Industrial Production

Industrial Production

See also: Air separation, Oxygen evolution, and fractional distillation

Two major methods are employed to produce 100 million tonnes of O2 extracted from air for industrial uses annually. The most common method is to fractionally distill liquefied air into its various components, with N2 distilling as a vapor while O2 is left as a liquid.

The other major method of producing O2 gas involves passing a stream of clean, dry air through one bed of a pair of identical zeolite molecular sieves, which absorbs the nitrogen and delivers a gas stream that is 90% to 93% O2. Simultaneously, nitrogen gas is released from the other nitrogen-saturated zeolite bed, by reducing the chamber operating pressure and diverting part of the oxygen gas from the producer bed through it, in the reverse direction of flow. After a set cycle time the operation of the two beds is interchanged, thereby allowing for a continuous supply of gaseous oxygen to be pumped through a pipeline. This is known as pressure swing adsorption. Oxygen gas is increasingly obtained by these non-cryogenic technologies (see also the related vacuum swing adsorption).

Oxygen gas can also be produced through electrolysis of water into molecular oxygen and hydrogen. DC electricity must be used: if AC is used, the gases in each limb consist of hydrogen and oxygen in the explosive ratio 2:1. Contrary to popular belief, the 2:1 ratio observed in the DC electrolysis of acidified water does not prove that the empirical formula of water is H2O unless certain assumptions are made about the molecular formulae of hydrogen and oxygen themselves. A similar method is the electrocatalytic O2 evolution from oxides and oxoacids. Chemical catalysts can be used as well, such as in chemical oxygen generators or oxygen candles that are used as part of the life-support equipment on submarines, and are still part of standard equipment on commercial airliners in case of depressurization emergencies. Another air separation technology involves forcing air to dissolve through ceramic membranes based on zirconium dioxide by either high pressure or an electric current, to produce nearly pure O2 gas.

In large quantities, the price of liquid oxygen in 2001 was approximately $0.21/kg. Since the primary cost of production is the energy cost of liquefying the air, the production cost will change as energy cost varies.

For reasons of economy, oxygen is often transported in bulk as a liquid in specially insulated tankers, since one litre of liquefied oxygen is equivalent to 840 liters of gaseous oxygen at atmospheric pressure and 20 °C (68 °F). Such tankers are used to refill bulk liquid oxygen storage containers, which stand outside hospitals and other institutions with a need for large volumes of pure oxygen gas. Liquid oxygen is passed through heat exchangers, which convert the cryogenic liquid into gas before it enters the building. Oxygen is also stored and shipped in smaller cylinders containing the compressed gas; a form that is useful in certain portable medical applications and oxy-fuel welding and cutting.

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