Running Out of Gas: Chemical, Food Industries Face Shortage of Nitrous Oxide

Chemical manufacturers could be affected by a continued shortage of nitrous oxide in the wake of an explosion in Florida nearly four months ago.

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Chemical manufacturers could be affected by a continued shortage of nitrous oxide in the wake of an explosion in Florida nearly four months ago.

Industrial gas giant Airgas continues to investigate the blast, which killed one of its employees at the facility near Pensacola. The plant, as a result, remains shut down, and the company was reportedly unable to compensate for the lost nitrous oxide production with its other plants.

Airgas officials recently said that a shortage of "laughing gas" forced it to make medical customers "our first priority."

The shortfall made headlines this week after food company Conagra said it could trigger a shortage of Reddi-wip whipped topping during the holidays.

Nitrous oxide is most famously used as an anesthetic in medical and dental procedures and as a propellant for the food sector, but a trade group also noted its role in semiconductor and chemical manufacturing.

The shortage also highlighted the increasingly intricate links of global supply chains. The Airgas plant itself, The Atlantic noted, was supplied by a neighboring nylon plant that produced nitrous oxide as a byproduct.

Investigators, meanwhile, appear closer to determining a cause of the August blast.

Nitrous oxide is stable at room temperature but becomes combustive at high temperatures. An official with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board suggested that the pump handle used to fill the tanks was at fault, but static buildup could not be ruled out.

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