Separation of atmospheric air into its primary constituents. Nitrogen, oxygen, and argon are the primary constituents of air. Small quantities of neon, helium, krypton, and xenon are present at constant concentrations and can be separated as products. Varying quantities of water, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and trace environmental impurities (sulfur and nitrogen oxides, chlorine) are present depending upon location and climate. Typical quantities are shown in the table. These impurities are removed during air separation to maximize efficiency and avoid hazardous operation.
Three different technologies are used for the separation of air: cryogenic distillation, ambient temperature adsorption, and membrane separations. The latter two have evolved to full commercial status. Membrane technology is economical for the production of nitrogen and oxygen-enriched air (up to about 40% oxygen) at small scale. Adsorption technology produces nitrogen and medium-purity oxygen (85–95% oxygen) at flow rates up to 100 tons/day. The cryogenic process can generate oxygen or nitrogen at flows of 2500 tons/day from a single plant and make the full range of products.
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Air separation is a major industry. Nitrogen and oxygen rank second and third in the scale of production of commodity chemicals; and air is the primary source of argon, neon, krypton, and xenon. Oxygen is used for steel, chemicals manufacture, and waste processing. Important uses are in integrated gasification combined cycle production of electricity, waste water treatment, and oxygen-enriched combustion. Nitrogen provides inert atmospheres for fuel, steel, and chemical processing and for the production of semiconductors.