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Oxygen crisis: More than supply, lack of tankers and plant location key challenges

Two weeks ago, the Centre allowed industrial oxygen to be diverted for medical use with the Railways starting an Oxygen Express service to carry tankers. The IAF has also been pressed into service to airlift empty tankers from as far as Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore.

The oxygen crisis during the second Covid surge has been precipitated by a shortage of tankers and the daunting logistics of transportation from distant locations — not by a dearth of Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO), which is available in sufficient quantity, top officials and key industry players told The Indian Express.

Official figures show that on April 24, various industries produced 9,103 metric tonnes (MT) of LMO against a previously existing capacity of 7,259 MT. On the same day, the sale of LMO stood at 7,017 MT.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was informed during a review meeting that production has increased from 5,700 MT per day in August 2020 to 8,922 MT on April 25 this year.

“The domestic production of LMO is expected to cross 9,250 MT per day by the end of April,” the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said.

Apart from specialised manufacturers such as Kolkata-based Linde India and Mumbai-based Inox Air, which produce liquid oxygen for medical and industrial use, the steel industry and oil refineries contribute significantly with their captive plants.

“We do not have enough tankers to carry supplies. Most of the plants are located in eastern India, apart from a couple in the west. This means long distances and a lot of turnaround time. Add to this the problem of states holding up tankers on the way and you get an idea of the crisis,” a Linde executive told The Indian Express.

“We have adequate availability of oxygen, but transportation remains a challenge,” said Piyush Goyal, Additional Secretary with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Official sources said that currently, almost 50 per cent of supply is from steel companies. The industry has a production capacity of over 60,000-70,000 tonnes of oxygen in the gaseous form for use in integrated plants. There are 33 such plants in the country, each with a capacity to liquefy 5-10 per cent of production along with corresponding storage.

Hurdles on the way

Most of the oxygen plants are located in the east, leading to long transportation hauls and a turnaround time of at least 6-7 days for each tanker. Officials estimate that at any given point, there are only 200 tankers in transit to meet a demand of 3,500-4,000 MT.

While Tata Steel is supplying over 600 MT of LMO daily, JSW is providing 1000 MTs. Similarly, RIL, Adani, ITC, and Jindal Steel and Power, among others, are diverting a significant portion of liquid oxygen for medical purposes, sources said.

The industry has also made available liquid oxygen from its storage tanks — about 16,000 MT as on April 21, according to an MHA affidavit in Supreme Court.

The problem lies somewhere else, officials said. At present, India has 1,224 oxygen tankers with a cumulative capacity of 16,732 MT of LMO. “This is grossly inadequate. The turnaround time for tankers at the moment is a minimum of 6-7 days. This means our daily availability of tankers is one-sixth of the total. If we only take into account supply from steel and refineries, you are talking about meeting a demand of 3,500-4,000 tonnes with just about 200 tankers,” a state nodal officer for oxygen distribution told The Indian Express.

Outlining the Government’s challenge, the official said cryogenic tankers cost around Rs 50 lakh each. “Why would a company buy more tankers than it needs? Once this wave is over, that investment will turn into losses. So it’s the Government’s responsibility to arrange for tankers,” the official said.

“The biggest bottleneck is the shortage of cryogenic containers. Tatas are importing 36 cryogenic vessels by this month-end,” said T V Narendran, president-designate, Confederation of Indian Industries (CII).

Sources told The Indian Express that the Government is also eyeing the manufacture of 100 tankers by the IOCL Cryogenics Plant in Nashik although deliveries will only take place within “4-6 months”. According to the Union Health Ministry, 20 cryogenic tankers have been imported.

Cryogenic tankers, which store medical oxygen at -180 degrees C, have double-skin vacuum-insulated containers, including an inner vessel made of stainless steel. The space between the inner and outer vessels is filled with insulant.

Munjal Mehta, director, Shell-n-Tube Pvt Ltd, which manufactures cryogenic tanks, said: “In the pre-Covid time, a tanker had to refill medical oxygen stock at a hospital once in week but now that hospital requires supply every day.”

Two weeks ago, the Centre allowed industrial oxygen to be diverted for medical use with the Railways starting an Oxygen Express service to carry tankers. The IAF has also been pressed into service to airlift empty tankers from as far as Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore (see chart).

Yet, there are challenges. The Railways’ efforts have been stymied by the requirement that the tankers should be of a particular specification to pass through tunnels and under station canopies. Since the first Oxygen Express left for Visakhapatnam from Mumbai on April 21, just 26 tankers carrying around 450 MT have been transported till date — around a dozen tankers are currently in transit.

The Government is, meanwhile, putting in place several other measures to tackle the crisis, including increasing the number of tankers to 2,000 by converting nitrogen tankers to carry oxygen. According to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, there are 434 argon tankers and 765 nitrogen tankers in the country. Sources said about 50 per cent of these would be converted.

Besides, 162 tankers are being imported on a hire/purchase basis with the IAF facilitating transport. The IAF is also airlifting empty tankers from its Hindon base to Durgapur. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) has already released SOPs for conversion of 138 available LNG tankers for oxygen.

Other measures include directing states to not allow the use of liquid oxygen in any industry, barring pharmaceutical and defence and for ampoules and vials; ordering the installation of location tracking devices on vehicles carrying oxygen; and, mapping oxygen sources for high-burden states to ensure quick supply.

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