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Air, mixture of gases that composes the atmosphere surrounding Earth. These gase
s consist primarily of the elements nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and smaller amounts
of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, helium, neon, krypton, xenon, and oth
ers. The most important attribute of air is its life-sustaining property. Human
and animal life would not be possible without oxygen in the atmosphere. In addit
ion to providing life-sustaining properties, the various atmospheric gases can b
e isolated from air and used in industrial and scientific applications, ranging
from steelmaking to the manufacture of semiconductors. This article discusses ho
w atmospheric gases are isolated and used for industrial and scientific purposes
. For more information about air and the atmosphere, see Meteorology and Atmosph
The atmosphere begins at sea level, and its first layer, the troposphere, extend
s from 8 to 16 km (5 and 10 mi) from Earths surface. The air in the troposphere c
onsists of the following proportions of gases: 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent o
xygen, 0.9 percent argon, 0.03 percent carbon dioxide, and the remaining 0.07 pe
rcent is a mixture of hydrogen, water, ozone, neon, helium, krypton, xenon, and
other trace components. Companies that isolate gases from air use air from the t
roposphere, so they produce gases in these same proportions.
The various atmospheric gases have many industrial and scientific uses. By far t
he most commercially important air gases are nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, each o
f which has valuable industrial applications. For example, fertilizers are manuf
actured from compounds made from nitrogen gas, steelmaking furnaces are heated w
ith oxygen, and incandescent light bulbs are filled with argon.
Scientists first isolated oxygen from air in 1774. They did not develop a commer
cial process for separating air into its component gases, however, until the tur
n of the 20th century. German professor Carl von Linde developed a process known
as cryogenic (cold-temperature) distillation. This process purifies and liquefi
es air at very cold temperatures. The liquid air is then boiled to isolate the g
ases (a process called fractional distillation). Liquid nitrogen boils at 195.79 C
(-320.42 F), argon at 185.86 C (-302.55 F), and oxygen at 182.96 C (-297.33 F). As the
boiling temperature is increased, nitrogen vaporizes from the liquid air first,
followed by argon, and then oxygen. Modern air-separation plants can isolate sa
mples of these gases that are up to 99.9999 percent pure.
Today many smaller air-separation plants (those that produce 200 metric tons or
less of oxygen per day) employ alternative methods to isolate oxygen and nitroge
n from air. Some of these plants use specialized membranes that selectively filt
er certain air gases. Others utilize beds of special pellets that selectively ad
sorb oxygen and nitrogen from the air.
Most larger air-separation plants continue to use cryogenic distillation to sepa
rate air gases. Before pure gases can be isolated from air, unwanted components
such as water vapor, dust, and carbon dioxide must be removed. First, the air is
filtered to remove dust and other particles. Next, the air is compressed as the
first step in liquefying the air. However, as the air is compressed, the molecu
les begin striking each other more frequently, raising the airs temperature (see
see Gases; Kinetic Energy). To offset the higher temperatures, water heat exchan
gers cool the air both during and after compression. As the air cools, most of i
ts water vapor content condenses into liquid and is removed.
After being compressed, the air passes through beds of adsorption beads that rem
ove carbon dioxide, the remaining water vapor, and molecules of heavy hydrocarbo
ns, such as acetylene, butane, and propylene. These compounds all freeze at a hi
gher temperature than do the other air gases. They must be removed before the ai
r is liquefied or they will freeze in the column where distillation occurs.
After filtering the air, a portion of the air stream is decompressed in a device
called a centrifugal expander (which is basically a compressor that runs in rev
erse). As the air expands, it loses kinetic energy (energy resulting from the mo
tion of the molecules), which lowers its temperature. The air expands and cools
until it liquefies at about -190 C (about -310 F).
After a portion of the air stream is liquefied, the liquid is fed into the top o
f a distillation column filled with perforated trays (or other structured packin
g assemblies). These trays or assemblies allow the liquid to trickle down throug
h the column. At the same time, the gaseous portion of the air stream (the part
that is still compressed) is fed into the bottom of the column. As the gaseous a
ir rises up through the column, it bubbles up through the liquid trickling down
through the trays or packing. The gas is slightly warmer than the liquid is, so
as it rises, it heats and eventually boils the surrounding liquid.
The gaseous air also cools as it rises up through the column. The cooling of the
gas as it rises creates a temperature difference along the column. The gas heat
s the liquid at the bottom of the column the most, raising it to a temperature h
igher than that of the liquid at the top of the column. As the liquid trickles d
own, it heats up and reaches the boiling point of nitrogen first. The nitrogen b
oils off near the top of the column and quickly rises to the top. Argon has a bo
iling point between that of nitrogen and oxygen, so it boils off near the middle
of the column. Oxygen has a higher boiling point than that of argon or nitrogen
, so it remains a liquid until it reaches the bottom of the column, where the te
mperature is highest, before boiling away. See also Fractional Distillation.
Krypton, xenon, helium, and neon also separate from the other gases in the colum
n but remain a mixture because the temperature of the column is not cold enough
to liquefy these gases. If operators decide to recover these rare gases in the a
ir-separation process and save them for future use, they withdraw the mixture of
these gases from the column. They can then separate and purify the krypton, xen
on, helium, and neon from the mixture. With the exception of helium, there is li
ttle commercial demand for these gases, so operators usually do not recover them
. The majority of the worlds helium supply is recovered from natural gas by a sim
ilar distillation process.
Oxygen, nitrogen, and argon are shipped and stored either as liquids or as compr
essed gases. As liquids, they are stored in insulated containers; as compressed
gases, they are held in steel cylinders that are pressurized up to 170 kg/cm2 (2
,400 lb/in2). When recovered, neon, krypton, and xenon are packaged as gases in
steel cylinders or glass flasks. Because industries can obtain helium at lower c
osts from other sources, it is generally returned to the atmosphere after the se
paration process.
Oxygen, nitrogen, argon, neon, krypton, and xenon are used in making industrial
products essential to modern living. These products include steel, petrochemical
s, lighting systems, fertilizers, and semiconductors (substances used to make th
e chips in computers, calculators, televisions, microwave ovens, and many other
electronic devices).
A Oxygen
More than half of the oxygen produced in the United States is used by the steel
industry, which injects the gas into basic oxygen furnaces to heat and produce s
teel (see Iron and Steel Manufacture: Basic Oxygen Process). Metalworkers also c
ombine oxygen with acetylene to produce high-temperature torch flames that cut a
nd weld steel.
Oxygen is also important in the aerospace industry. Oxygen reacts with fuel, suc
h as hydrogen, burning the fuel and supplying energy for launching and powering
rockets. The oxygen is stored aboard the rocket as a liquid and converted to gas
before reacting with the propellant fuel ( See also Combustion).
B Nitrogen
About 36 million metric tons of nitrogen are produced each year in the United St
ates, and about 4 million metric tons are produced in Canada each year. Nearly a
third of the nitrogen produced in the United States is used as a cryogenic liqu
id to instantly freeze and preserve the flavor and moisture content of a wide ra
nge of foods, including hamburger and shrimp. Nitrogen is also used extensively
in the chemical industry to produce ammonia (NH3), which in turn is used to prod
uce urea fertilizers, nitric acid, and many other important chemical products. D
uring oil drilling, nitrogen is used to help force petroleum up from underground
deposits. Due to its chemical stability, nitrogen is added to various manufactu
ring processes to prevent fires and explosions. For example, manufacturers often
blanket highly flammable petroleum, chemicals, and paint in a protective layer
of nitrogen during processing.
Nitrogen is used in the electronics industry to flush air from vacuum tubes befo
re the tubes are sealed. Incandescent lamp bulbs are flushed with nitrogen gas b
efore being filled with a nitrogen-argon gas mixture. In metalworking operations
, nitrogen is used to control furnace atmospheres during annealing (heating and
slowly cooling metal for strengthening). Metalworkers also use nitrogen to remov
e dissolved hydrogen from molten aluminum and to refine scrap aluminum.
C Argon
In contrast to nitrogen, which reacts with certain metallic elements at higher t
emperatures, argon is completely unreactive (see Noble Gases). In addition to be
ing extremely stable, argon is a good insulator and does not conduct heat well.
Because of these properties, argon gas (in combination with less expensive nitro
gen gas) is used to fill incandescent lamp bulbs. The stable, insulating gas all
ows bulb filaments to reach higher temperatures and therefore produce more light
without overheating the bulb.
Argon has the unusual ability to ionize, or become electrically conductive, at m
uch lower voltages than most other gases can. When ionized, argon emits brightly
colored light. As a result, argon is also used to make brightly colored neon disp
lay signs and fluorescent tubes used to light building interiors. Argon is also
used in the electronics industry to produce the highly purified semiconductor me
tals silicon and germanium, both of which are used to make transistor (see also
D Neon, Krypton, and Xenon
Like argon, the noble gases neon, krypton, and xenon have the ability to ionize
at relatively low voltages. As a result, these gases are also used to light neon d
isplay signs. In addition, the atomic industry uses neon, krypton, and xenon as
the fill gas for ionization chambers. Ionization chambers are containers filled wi
th gas and grids of wires that scientists use for measuring radiation and for st
udying subatomic particles.
Not all industrial uses of air require it to be separated into its component gas
es. Compressed airplain air that has been pressurized by squeezing it into a smal
ler-than-normal volumeis used in many industrial applications. When air is compre
ssed, the gas molecules collide with each other more frequently and with more fo
rce, producing higher kinetic energy. The kinetic energy in compressed air can b
e converted into mechanical energy or it can be used to produce a powerful air f
low or an air cushion. Compressed air is easily transmitted through pipes and ho
ses with little loss of energy, so it can be utilized at a considerable distance
from the compressor or pressure tank.
The first large-scale application of compressed-air energy occurred in 1871, dur
ing the excavation of the Mont Cenis railroad tunnel through the Alps. Engineers
developed a water-wheel-driven air compressor that powered the rock drills used
to dig the tunnel. Before the invention of air compressors, miners used steam-p
owered rock drills, but exhaust steam made working conditions in underground min
es unbearable. After the development of the air compressor, the mining industry
began using compressed-air energy to drill mines. Soon other industries were uti
lizing compressed-air energy for a variety of uses.
Modern compressors can pressurize air up to 1,025 kg/cm2 (15,000 lbs/in2). Moder
n pneumatic (compressed-air-driven) tools include nail guns, grinders, rotary dr
ills, and jackhammers. Compressed air drives conveyers that transport grain, pow
dered coal, and other materials. Compressed air also powers pneumatic cylinders
that apply the brakes on railroad trains. It is used to furnish the forced draft
for blast furnaces and other combustion processes, to ventilate mines and build
ings, and to operate control equipment in processing plants.
Contributed By:
Dennis L. Derr
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005. 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights