Industrial gas: journey to a cleaner future

Described by its representative body as the ‘invisible industry’, the industrial gas sector is little known, yet essential. Suzanne Lowe, UK & Ireland Vice President for Air Products, explains the sector’s journey to decarbonise its operations, and those of its manufacturing customers.

Industrial gas may not sound very exciting – but believe me, it is. There’s the life critical gas, like the oxygen supply in hospitals, the liquid nitrogen used to cryogenically store stem cells, and the modified atmospheres that keep our food fresher for longer. And then, there’s the life enhancing gas – the CO2 that puts the fizz in your beer, the helium that keeps your child’s birthday balloon afloat and the welding gases that help create the car you own. One way or another, the industrial gas sector touches the lives of consumers daily.

The industry is significant in its own right – members of the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) employ a combined 19,000 people directly and account for an annual turnover of £2.7 bn1. But we’re also a critical lynch pin and supplier to the UK manufacturing sector, recently valued at a staggering £224 billion2. This means we have a significant opportunity and responsibility to support the UK’s drive to reach net zero by 2050 and generate a cleaner future.

Decarbonising an energy-intensive industry

When I tell people that sustainability is the foundation of our growth strategy, they are sometimes surprised. Industrial gas manufacturing has traditionally been an energy-intensive sector, but Air Products is making real headway in tackling this, with a specific goal to reduce the intensity of Scope 1 and 2 CO2 emissions by a third by 2030.

This will, in part, be facilitated by the digitisation of our existing plants. Data has become increasingly important in identifying where to focus our investment and resources, and secure maximum reductions in energy use.

Thanks to a data-rich approach we were able to, for example, identify an overuse of power at our Carrington plant, and adjust operations accordingly. Similarly, at our Didcot plant, digital insights allowed us to identify and trace an increase in energy consumption back to a malfunctioning piece of kit, addressing the issue in question and further improving overall energy efficiency to boot.

To date we have digitised 70 plants, including our own Air Separation Units (ASUs) at Hull, Carrington and Didcot, and a range of customer plants too. We’re also tackling our fleet emissions, with a commitment to convert around 2000 vehicles to hydrogen fuel cell trucks globally by 2030.

Our investment in new facilities is equally important, and we’ve recently announced plans to build, own and operate a state-of-the-art carbon capture and carbon dioxide (CO2) treatment facility at our hydrogen production plant in the Netherlands which also supplies the UK. This will be the largest blue hydrogen plant in Europe once operational. The carbon capture retrofit will allow us to more than halve our CO2 emissions in the port of Rotterdam.

Generating a cleaner future

What’s fascinating about our sector’s progression is not just the steps forward on our own decarbonisation journey, but the way we are supporting and facilitating the decarbonisation of our customers’ operations across the manufacturing sector too.

According to Make UK’s ‘Making it to Net Zero Guide’, manufacturing is the UK’s third-highest emitting industrial sector after transport and buildings, responsible for a sixth of the UK’s total emissions. It’s widely accepted that to deliver net zero by 2050, the manufacturing sector will need to halve its emissions by 2030, now only six years away.

Scope 1 emissions (in other words, those that are directly generated as part of business operations) are a big focus, and where we have an exciting opportunity to make a real impact.

The industrial gases we produce help dozens of industries improve yields, reduce energy consumption and lower emissions – making more with less while reducing impact on the environment. The oxygen and hydrogen we supply enable better combustion of fuels that reduces emissions in applications like cement, metals and glass manufacturing. Meanwhile our nitrogen is used in food freezing to improve product quality and reduce food waste – a major global issue.

We’re also embracing the latest digital technologies to support industries such as metal production. Our work with the secondary aluminium sector is particularly interesting, exploring how we can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of remelting furnaces with oxygen enhanced combustion technology. Working together with Tandom Metallurgical Group, for example, we’ve been able to create a digital twin study of their melting process. This identified opportunities to reduce metal tapping temperature and in so doing cut energy use and CO2 emissions by 15%.

Driving the energy transition

We’re also looking to the future and the role of alternative fuels.

Blue and green hydrogen provide an attractive alternative energy source and can be used to help decarbonise heavy industry, such as steelmaking and construction, and as a low carbon fuel for transport. We’re heavily invested in this sector, with at least $15 billion committed to green and blue hydrogen energy projects globally by 2027.

In the UK, we are looking to invest in a renewable energy facility in Immingham, together with Associated British Ports. This world scale facility would convert renewable ammonia to green hydrogen which can then decarbonise industry and heavy-duty transport across the country. The renewable ammonia would be transported from the world’s largest green hydrogen-based ammonia production facility in Saudi Arabia, that we are building together with ACWA Power and NEOM. If it proceeds, the facility in Immingham could produce up to 300MW of hydrogen and generate £4.6 billion of GVA in the Humber region alone.

It’s easy to criticise energy intensive sectors, without due recognition of the significant progress that is being made. Decarbonising industry that has historically relied on fossil fuels and high levels of energy consumption was never going to be easy, but we shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate the progress that is being made.

These are not quick wins, but they are significant and important ones in our bid to generate a cleaner future, and something that the industrial gas sector and its customers should be proud of. Of course, there remains more to do, but we have a positive foundation on which to build.



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