Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.


Air, mixture of gases that composes the atmosphere surrounding Earth. These gases consist primarily of the elements nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and smaller amounts of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, helium, neon, krypton, xenon, and others. 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 addition to providing life-sustaining properties, the various atmospheric gases can be isolated from air and used in industrial and scientific applications, ranging from steelmaking to the manufacture of semiconductors. This article discusses how atmospheric gases are isolated and used for industrial and scientific purposes.


The atmosphere begins at sea level, and its first layer, the troposphere, extends from 8 to 16 km (5 and 10 mi) from Earth’s surface. The air in the troposphere consists of the following proportions of gases: 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon, 0.03 percent carbon dioxide, and the remaining 0.07 percent 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 troposphere, so they produce gases in these same proportions.


Most larger air-separation plants continue to use cryogenic distillation to separate 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 molecules begin striking each other more frequently, raising the air’s temperature. To offset the higher temperatures, water heat exchangers cool the air both during and after compression. As the air cools, most of its water vapor content condenses into liquid and is removed.

After being compressed, the air passes through beds of adsorption beads that remove carbon dioxide, the remaining water vapor, and molecules of heavy hydrocarbons, such as acetylene, butane, and propylene. These compounds all freeze at a higher temperature than do the other air gases. They must be removed before the air is liquefied or they will freeze in the column where distillation occurs.


Not all industrial uses of air require it to be separated into its component gases. Compressed air—plain air that has been pressurized by squeezing it into a smaller-than-normal volume—is used in many industrial applications. When air is compressed, the gas molecules collide with each other more frequently and with more force, producing higher kinetic energy. The kinetic energy in compressed air can be converted into mechanical energy or it can be used to produce a powerful air flow or an air cushion. Compressed air is easily transmitted through pipes and hoses with little loss of energy, so it can be utilized at a considerable distance from the compressor or pressure tank.