One of the most powerful movers (literally) of the industry is weightless air. When harnessed properly, air can move heavy machinery and stop trains at their tracks. Air is everywhere and its uses in multiple industries and everyday life might surprise you.
The air in its normal state isn’t that impressive aside from being essential to life. However, when compressed, air can produce massive amounts of energy, allowing it to punch way above its weight. Consider air as a vast pool of molecules. These molecules are so far apart (compared to solids and liquids) they can be compressed together. Air which is contained in a sealed container (usually a tank or cylinder) is compressed by making the tank smaller, usually by a mechanism or piston that moves one of the tank or cylinder’s walls.
Air compression is measured in PSI or pounds per square inch, with normal atmospheric pressure at sea level standing at 14.7. PSI gauges measure additional pressure with 14.7 as the base. When you pump air into your car’s tire and the gauge reads 35, its actual PSI is closer to 49.7.
The use of compressed air in industries is so prevalent; it is sometimes called the fourth utility. 10 percent of electricity in the US and Europe is used for air compression systems. Such systems are being used to drive machinery in plants, most notably automated machinery. Fine control and high power outputs have made air control systems the foremost option in power tools used in construction and manufacturing.
Aside from its ability to move objects, compressed air is also used for its ability to stop them. Air brakes are being used in railways and trucking, allowing vehicles with tons of mass and momentum to safely stop in their tracks. Australia has even green-lighted the construction of a $30 million advanced compressed air energy storage facility. The project will provide an alternative way to store excess energy from the grid and is seen as a better option for pumped water.
Handle with Care
Compressed air systems come with their own risks. While most of these risks can be mitigated or even eliminated with proper installation, storage, and maintenance, diligent and careful use is also required. A single wayward blast of air can send debris flying at high speeds, which can injure the eyes or any other exposed body part. Appropriate protective equipment must be used at all times, especially safety glasses with side shields and ear protection.
As little as 12 PSI (on the gauge) can blow your eye out of its socket and 40 PSI can rupture your eardrum and even damage your brain. Just being exposed to the loud noises of these systems can result in temporary or permanent hearing loss. Specific compressed air systems require the expertise of mechanical designers and engineers to ensure an efficient work output and the safety of those using them.
Air is essential to life on earth and the modern industry as we know it. The air that flows through your lungs is the same air that powers tools and machinery that shape your world.