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Picture a massive ocean tanker crossing the Pacific. It could be carrying cars, electronics, or other consumer goods. Or maybe it’s carrying oil, gas, or chemicals. When a tanker carries combustible substances, the oxygen in air can create fire risks. And if a fire breaks out on the ship, it could risk the lives of the entire crew. How do ships maintain safety at sea, sometimes thousands of miles from the nearest land? Today, tanker ships rely on nitrogen as a safer alternative to regular air.

What makes air dangerous? The atmosphere contains around 21% oxygen, which sustains life. But oxygen also makes up one part of the fire triangle. Fires require oxygen to burn, along with heat and fuel. Remove oxygen, and fires instantly go out. In the past, tankers transporting combustible substances like chemicals, oil, and gas were at risk of devastating fires at sea.

During an emergency, if a fire breaks out on the ship it can cause an explosion, putting lives at risk. But thanks to a new technology, today’s tankers are safer than ever before because they use nitrogen, an inert gas, to prevent explosions while loading and unloading combustible substances. Starting in the mid-1980s, tankers began following Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations. These regulations, which came from the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, help protect safety at sea.

Nitrogen inertion is the process of replacing regular air, rich in oxygen, with pure nitrogen gas. Fires cannot start in an inert environment, protecting the ship and its crew from even the danger of a static electric charge. By the late-1990s, many tankers began to use nitrogen generators to create their own inert gas.

Tankers using nitrogen inertion systems are much safer than the older tankers. The new technology improved ocean tankers, protecting lives. Similarly, drivers today benefit from an alternative to compressed air when they fill their tires. Compressed air introduces oxygen into tires, while the alternative, nitrogen inertion, replaces oxygen with an inert gas. Just like ocean tankers, tires filled with nitrogen are safer. They maintain the correct pressure longer, decreasing the risk of a blowout. Thanks to technological advances, drivers now have a safer alternative to 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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