Oxygen also written as O2 is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and a highly reactive nonmetallic element. It comprises of 21% of Earth’s atmosphere by volume and 23% by weight. The nonmetallic element is one of the most widely occurring elements on Earth. Because of its high reactivity oxygen easily forms oxides with other elements and compounds like silicates with the exception of noble gases. It is known to make up around 89 per cent of seawater, rivers and pounds. However, molecular oxygen only occurs in the atmosphere of the planet.
O2 is also important because of its necessity for maintaining life on the planet earth. It oxidizes the food we eat to provide energy and heat. Oxygen is highly reactive as it is deficient in electrons which it accepts from another substance during the reaction process. It is the reason it is highly oxidizing and promotes combustion. The highly reactive element is known to strongly aid oxidization of combustible materials releasing heat during the reaction. Mostly reactions require a catalyst for being triggered.
Of the two allotropic forms of oxygen, Ozone (O3) is very reactive compared to ordinary oxygen. O3 comes into being as a result of electrical discharges taking place in nature or through absorption of ultraviolet light. O3 forming due to the absorption of ultraviolet light in the upper atmosphere removed radiation which is considered dangerous for life on the planet. And, for its strong oxidizing properties, O3 is used for converting sulfides to sulfates and sulfur dioxide to sulfur trioxide. Commercial ozone generators are able to make large amounts of O3 for industrial and environmental applications. O3 is widely used as a chemical reagent in various applications including for bleaching textiles, purification of water, etc.
To an ordinary person, oxygen is the difference between life and death. It is understood to be the breath of life, which, indeed, it is. Without oxygen one cannot survive beyond a couple of minutes. This is the biological aspect of oxygen in our lives, which is not the only important application of oxygen in daily life. No denying it is most important, without all other applications would be null and void. Other applications are meant primarily for industries although significant portion of industrially generated oxygen is also used in medical applications in hospitals. Discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly in Wiltshire, England and independently by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Uppsala, Sweden, it is a non-metallic gas which is known for high reactivity enabling it to form oxides with most of the elements and compounds.
After nitrogen, it is the largest consumed gas in the industry as it is used in wide range of industries including steel, chemical, medical, etc. It is also known as GOX or Go when it is produced and delivered in the gaseous form. It is called LOX, LO2, or LO when it is produced and delivered in cryogenic liquid form.
Cryogenic distillation is considered the most efficient process for producing high purity oxygen in large quantities. Adsorption technologies such as pressure swing adsorption (PSA) & vacuum pressure swing adsorption (VPSA). As mentioned above, oxygen is important because of its high reactivity. Most commonly it is used for improving efficiency combustion processes or life processes as one sees in industrial and medical applications.
Applications of O2 spawn numerous industries. The largest consumer of commercially produced oxygen is steel industry which uses around 55% of the total output of industrially produced oxygen followed by chemical industries that use around 25% of the total production with other industries like pharmaceuticals& biotechnology, healthcare, petroleum processing , glass & ceramics, pulp & paper manufacturing , waste water treatment, etc. For application in effluent treatment & bleaching of paper, oxygen is first converted into ozone to achieve more reactivity for improving the rate of reaction for complete oxidization of unwanted elements.
It is the industry that is known for the largest consumption of industrially generated oxygen worldwide. It is estimated that the steel production processes worldwide consume 55% of all artificially generated industrial oxygen. Mostly it is used in sustaining the burning processes —electric arc furnace and basic oxygen process. Numerous other industries like aerospace, automotives, construction and defence also need oxygen.
This industry is second only to the steel and metal fabrication in the amount of oxygen it requires. It is said that the industry uses up to 25% of all industrially produced O2 worldwide. The highly reactive gas mostly acts as a catalyst in chemical reactions involving oxidation.
Remaining 20% of oxygen generated though industrial processes is used in wide range of industries mentioned in the heading. It is used in fisheries for cultivating healthier and tastier trout. Welding and cutting also require use of oxygen along with acetylene.
Treatment of waste water treatment is carried out with oxygen, where it is used for degrading hydrocarbon compounds. On heating them to extreme temperatures, the compounds are disintegrated into smaller constituents. It is done to generate combustion which frees water but at the same time the process might produce compounds such as ethylene, acetylene or propylene. O2 is also an essential element in the sewage and water purification plants where it is passed through water for raising the level of bacteria production for metabolizing waste products.
How, when and why oxygen started to be used in medical applications?
Any talk of the highly reactive gas would naturally start with its usefulness or necessity for maintaining human life or for that matter, all forms of life on Earth. Upon breathing the ambient air into our lungs oxygen is taken up into the bloodstream traveling to every nook and cranny of the body attached to the hemoglobin. The non-metallic gas reaches every cell of our body where it aids in combustion of the food we take releasing energy and heat facilitating us to carry our daily tasks of life. This dimension of oxygen led to experimentation for its application in medicine during fag end of the 19th century eventually mainstreaming its application in medical treatments by the middle of the 20th century.
Why oxygen is important for industrial applications?
Oxygen is a highly reactive gas as mentioned in the preceding paragraph. This is one of the important attribute of oxygen that can be useful in numerous industrial applications. The non-metallic gas supports combustion which is the most important characteristic of oxygen responsible for its wide-spread applications. However, it must be understood that O2 supports combustion but in itself it is not combustible. It means that it aids in burning ferociously combustible materials when exposed to the presence of oxygen. It goes without saying that it is mostly used for sustaining burning processes in the manufacturing industries.
What type of oxygen is required for medical application?
The air we breathe constitutes 21% oxygen which does not meet the criteria set by the WHO guidelines, the US, the UK, European and Indian Pharmacopoeias. The guidelines mandates O2 must have purity which is not less than 99%ppm and impurities must be within the defined parameters. Cryogenic distillation process is recommended for processing and distilling atmospheric air into high purity oxygen. It is the most efficient process because it generates oxygen with purity meeting the medical specifications.
What is industrial oxygen?
Industrial oxygen is commercially produced oxygen with high purity using cryogenic distillation or pressure swing adsorption (PSA) process. There are other processes available as well but these are the ones that mostly used in the industries. We will discuss important applications of oxygen how, why, what and why of oxygen purity and generation processes. Most industries require oxygen to have purity not less than 99%ppm. The standards remain same as for medical oxygen but are mostly relaxed.
How industrial oxygen is produced?
Industrial oxygen is produced with an industrial equipment fitted cryogenic air separation or pressure swing adsorption (PSA) technology. Mostly, the businesses prefer to use cryogenic distillation process since it is the most efficient reliable method for generating continuous supply of O2 with high purity with no fear of machinery breakdowns. The process requires minimum maintenance and offers the least energy consumption. The process takes in ambient air through the inlet of air separation unit (ASU) which is then cleaned and cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Liquefied air is separated into constituent elements of air –oxygen and nitrogen. The chosen product, in our case, oxygen is distilled to achieve desired purity.
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Also Read: What are Properties and Uses of Oxygen?