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Many chemical plants contain volatile, dangerous chemicals. For example, plants that manufacture fertilizer must produce ammonium nitrate, an explosive compound that can create massive fireballs. Every day, chemical plants around the country use tools to prevent explosions and ensure a safe workplace for their employees. And one of their best safety tools involves inerting with nitrogen.

Inerting floods a space with a noncombustible gas such as nitrogen. Unlike oxygen, a highly reactive and combustible gas, nitrogen stifles flames and explosions. By minimizing the oxygen level in a room or pipeline and replacing it with nitrogen, chemical plants put out fires and stop explosions. And nitrogen does not react with other chemicals at most temperatures, meaning that it does not affect the quality of the chemical product––in fact, nitrogen can improve the quality of some products by halting oxidation caused by regular air.

In order to refine nitrogen for use in inerting systems, many chemical plants use on-site technologies that separate nitrogen from air. These methods include membranes that filter out certain molecules, pressure swing machines that can separate nitrogen, and cryogenically separating nitrogen. And chemical plants use different methods to protect safety through inerting. Partial inerting, for example, reduces oxygen concentrations to prevent explosion. Purging floods pipes or an apparatus with nitrogen to displace explosive gases. Blanketing, on the other hand, constantly fills a space with nitrogen to provide completely inert conditions during manufacturing. These methods both improve safety and create stronger finished products.

Many industries use nitrogen inerting to improve safety. In refining plants, petrochemical companies, and specialty chemistry plants, nitrogen inerting systems save lives and money. And nitrogen gas also improves safety in other contexts including everyday life. For example, filling car tires with nitrogen rather than compressed air improves safety on the roads. Tires filled with nitrogen hold air pressure longer, meaning they handle better on the road and are less likely to suffer from a blowout, which can cost lives.

The same process that protects chemical plants can also protect drivers––by filling their tires with nitrogen instead of compressed air.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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