Industrial use of compressed air dates to the middle of the 19th century. European engineers developed & used compressed air operated drills in the construction of the Mont Cenis Tunnel in 1861. This type of machinery had typically been steam-powered, but you needed a fire to boil the water. Since steam loses energy when piped over long distances, that means you’d need a fire in the tunnel shaft, and that’s not good for the miners. Electric powered products were not a viable option…they weren’t developed to the scale needed for this, and generation & distribution were not up to the task back then.
Compressed air made the most sense, because it COULD be generated locally, outside the shaft, and plumbed in to the tools without energy loss (much of the energy from steam is lost when it condenses…and compressed air doesn’t condense.) The Mont Cenis Tunnel project was a big deal in the advancement of industrial compressed air applications. It was originally estimated to take 25 years, but, largely due to the success of the air operated drills, it was completed in only 14 years. This got the attention of mining industry folks in America, where coal mining was growing exponentially in the late 1800’s.
The need for bigger & better machinery and tools kept pace with the growth in industry overall throughout this time, and even to the present day. As the distribution grid spread to just about everywhere, electricity became the principal method of providing power. Natural gas remains popular for especially large machinery, heating, and, in fact, for electric power generation.
Water has always been key to just about any human endeavor, from agriculture, to chemical production, to cleaning…which is universal to any industry. Like electricity and natural gas, its distribution grid was also vital to industrial growth & production.
As the “fourth utility,” as it’s become known, compressed air is unique in that it’s customarily generated on site. This gives control to the consumer, which is great, because they can decide how much they want to make, based on how much they want to use. And, because many applications that can use compressed air can also be addressed through other means (more on that in a minute,) the powers-that-be can decide which one makes the most sense, big-picture-wise.
Here are some common industrial applications that can be handled pneumatically, or otherwise:
Moving product from one place to another: air operated conveyors (like EXAIR Line Vacs) or electric powered belt/auger/bucket conveyors.
- Force and motion: pneumatic, or hydraulic cylinders.
- Cleaning: Compressed air blow off devices (like EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air Products) or electric powered blowers…or brooms, brushes, and dustpans.
- Rotary or impact tools: pneumatic or electric.
- Cooling: Compressed air operated Vortex Tubes, or refrigerant based chillers, or chilled water.
The fact that there are four major utilities proves that there’s usually more than one solution to an application. The challenge is, which one makes the most sense? If you need help with data or recommendations from a compressed air industry expert, give me a call.