Air Products is located on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, PA. If you’ve ever heard of the Air Products business, you may conjure up an image of small cylinder tanks of helium or other "rare" gases sitting inside a chain fence. Yes, Air Products sells gases by the tank, but they also manufacture the mother of all gas tanks, and that’s where the shale gas business comes in…
On the wooded outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, Air Products owns a cavernous, century-old brick factory building. Perhaps three or four times a year, the building’s sliding doors part, giving birth to something utterly incongruous: A huge white NASA rocket two-thirds the length of a football field.
Well, it looks like a rocket. In fact, the resemblance is purely accidental. The massive cylindrical object is something else entirely — a heat exchanger. And weighing in at more than 500 tons, it will never be airborne.
It will be shipped overseas and mounted upright in some far-off locale, perhaps a desert in the Middle East or an offshore drilling platform where natural gas is extracted from deep within the earth’s crust. And there, for all the mind-boggling technology that goes into its manufacture and operation, it will be tasked with a relatively simple job.
A heat exchanger liquefies natural gas. That is, it chills the gas to its condensation point at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, converting it into a much denser liquid.
This is a critical link in the global natural gas distribution chain. In its gaseous state, natural gas takes up 600 times as much space as it does as a liquid. Only after natural gas is liquefied is it cost-effective to transport via tanker ships to population centers where the relatively clean-burning fossil fuel is in high demand.
The natural gas business is booming. In recent years, technological advances have led to the discovery of new natural gas reserves, new ways of tapping the gas and new uses for it.
Air Products, it turns out, has been and continues to be involved in all of these stages. The Trexlertown company, for instance, is both a leading supplier of the nitrogen used in natural gas exploration and extraction, and a leading producer of helium, which is derived from natural gas for use in MRI scanners, silicon wafers and party balloons.
Among these important Air Products contributions, however, the heat exchanger stands out, and not merely because of its massive size and dramatic profile. The majority of liquefied natural gas throughout the world is produced with an Air Products heat exchanger made at the Wilkes-Barre plant.
Rising demand compared with petroleum products such as gasoline and heating oil, natural gas releases a fraction of the pollution. With the world’s energy needs and the threat of global warming growing in tandem, natural gas has the distinction of being embraced by both energy companies and some environmentalists.
Today, natural gas is extracted throughout the United States in places such as the wind-swept grasslands of North Dakota, the long-abandoned oil fields of California and the Marcellus Shale formation running through Pennsylvania. An extensive pipeline system allows this gas to be transported directly to businesses and homes.
But that kind of infrastructure isn’t in place in many other parts of the world, especially in the developing world where energy needs are rising fastest. Hence the demand for heat exchangers. Upon delivery by a tanker ship, liquefied natural gas can be reconverted into a gas to fuel everything from power plants to home heating systems to automobiles.
For Air Products, rising demand for natural gas translates into a faster production schedule. The Wilkes-Barre facility has been making heat exchangers since the early 1960s, initially at the rate of about one every year and a half. It took until the mid-1990s for the 50th heat exchanger to be built. The next 50, however, were finished in half as much time.
Air Products rolled out its 100th heat exchanger last summer. It was placed onto a custom rail car equipped with extra wheels to disperse its heavy weight, and carted ever so gingerly to a port near Philadelphia. The 125-mile trek took five painstaking days, inching along a route with raised bridges and widened corridors, modifications to accommodate ever-bigger heat exchangers from Wilkes-Barre.*
Click the link below to finish reading this fascinating story about Air Products and the next two orders they’ve already received for heat exchangers (one domestic, the other international).
*Allentown (PA) The Morning Call (Apr 14, 2013) – Global natural gas boom fuels local Air Products business