Air Liquide, world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health, has been building its leadership ever since the business was founded in 1902. Day after day, innovation after innovation, we have grown continuously to conquer new markets. Retrace the milestones of our long history here.
Air Liquide was born from the meeting of two young graduates of the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielle in Paris. An inspired and sometimes eccentric researcher, Georges Claude succeeded in perfecting the process of liquefying air after two years of relentless experimentation in a Paris bus garage. His partner, Paul Delorme, was a prudent visionary who, despite financial concerns, did not hesitate to support this industrial project and provided the crucial initial investment. The young company quickly attracted investment from 24 shareholders, and Air Liquide’s great adventure began.
Since gases are difficult to transport, local production was essential. For this reason among many others, we looked to international markets at a very early stage and built numerous production units in other countries. The Group expanded rapidly at this time, beginning in Europe (1906), soon to be followed by Japan (1907), Canada (1911) and the USA (1916).
Our first 24 shareholders’ trust was amply rewarded when Air Liquide appeared on the Paris Stock Exchange in 1913. After more than 100 years on the stock market, individual shareholders are still very important for the Group. We now rely on the trust of more than 400,000 individual shareholders, a group that represents 36% of our total equity capital. Additionally, in 2014 and 2016 we won the Annual General Meeting Grand Prize, which rewards companies whose Annual General Meetings achieve market best practice standards.
In association with Commander Cousteau, Air Liquide invented the first open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. That invention led to the establishment of Aqua Lung, a company that became the world leader in personal aquatic equipment for recreational and professional diving. The disposal of this activity was effective in December 2016.
As the cryogenic revolution gathered speed, our company took on a new dimension thanks to our ability to package liquefied gas inside cryogenic tanks.
This delivered enormous benefits because it enabled bulk road and rail transportation of gases within a 150-mile radius of production sites. Two years later, in 1954, saw the start-up of a liquid oxygen production facility in northern France.
At this time, Air Liquide implemented the first networking strategy to link its gas production units together by building a network of pipelines. As a result, our production capacity grew tenfold in response to booming demand from large-scale industries, beginning with oxygen for steelmaking, and later nitrogen for the chemicals industry. It was at this point that our Large Industries (LI) business line was born out of our long-term commitment to customers. Large Industries is above all characterized by extended partnerships of fifteen years or more.
Today, we manage 5,600 miles of networks around the world, especially in North America (in the Gulf of Mexico and along the banks of the Mississippi), in Europe (France, the Benelux countries and the Ruhr Valley in Germany), and many Asian countries.
Convinced of the industrial applications for cryogenics, the then Chairman & CEO of Air Liquide Jean Delorme made the decision to create an advanced research center dedicated to this technology near Grenoble. For us, this marked the beginning of our adventures in space and our partnership with the Ariane program.
Fifty years later, the adventure continues: Air Liquide is reaffirming its commitment to the space industry, and is using innovation to consolidate and expand its range of services for space exploration programs and both today and tomorrow’s orbital systems.
Innovation has always been central to the history of our Group. In 1970, our Claude-Delorme Research Center on the Paris-Saclay Plateau became a reality close to the capital. The result is a major contribution to improving gas production techniques and developing applications for gases, from combustion to welding, metalworking, chemicals, electronics, food, breathing and environmental conditioning. This center embodies our commitment to understanding the industrial processes used by our customers, and developing new applications for gases in response to their quality, productivity, safety and environmental needs. Today, we operate seven research centers worldwide in France, Germany, the USA, Japan and China.
A jointly run project with Sasol in South Africa to convert coal to synthetic fuel required a major upscaling of our air gas separation units, or ASUs. The resulting evolution in technology established the Group as the leader in very high capacity ASUs, a position we maintain to this day.
In order to seize the new opportunities offered by the young market for electronics, Air Liquide began supplying ultra-high purity gases to the burgeoning semiconductors industry in Japan. The Tsukuba Research Center, which opened in 1987, allows us to develop new processes for the production of extremely high purity gases, including carrier gases (chiefly nitrogen) used to inert microchip production systems and the specialty gases used directly in the manufacture of semiconductors.
Building on the Group’s offer in oxygen and nitrogen, hydrogen and steam were integrated in our range in the mid-1990s. It was at this time that the Group also formally stated its commitment to greater environmental protection and more affordable energy. As part of ensuring the success of this new range of gases, we adopted the business model that has made our business in air gases so successful, and immediately introduced a basin strategy based on pipeline network, offering our customers flexibility, distribution reliability and high-quality services at the best-possible price.
Originally simply a provider of oxygen to hospitals, Air Liquide now became a healthcare specialist. We launched our Home healthcare business supported by a network of specialist teams. Medical gases are classified as medications in many countries. We also diversified our activities by entering the hygiene market. At the same time, Air Liquide embarked on a series of major research programs in therapeutic gases used for anesthesia, intensive care and pain control. Today, Air Liquide serves more than 7,500 hospitals and clinics, and 1,3 million patients worldwide in their own homes thanks to the work of 12,000 dedicated employees.
The Air Liquide response to a changing world and constantly evolving markets was to implement a new organizational structure. In 2007, we created four World Business Lines – Large Industries, Industrial Merchant, Healthcare and Electronics – to deliver a more effective response to market needs. Air Liquide introduced its ALMA corporate program in 2008 so that we could seize new opportunities for growth: industrial development in developing countries, the growing importance of energy and environmental issues, and growth in the high technology and healthcare sectors.
Impacted by an economic and financial crisis of unprecedented extent, we focused our efforts on managing our cash, our expenditure and our investments. Against a background of global recession, we once again demonstrated the solidity of our long-term contracts and the relevance of our economic model. The Group proved itself to be the exception to the rule, reporting stable net income and protecting the strength of its balance sheet
This was the year in which Air Liquide Arabia invested US$450 million (more than €350 million) in two large-scale hydrogen production facilities with a total combined capacity of more than 300,000 Nm³ per hour. The result was the Group's largest industrial investment in its entire history and the signature of its largest-ever 'over the fence'1 hydrogen contract. This project has strengthened our strategic position and boosted growth in the Middle East. The Yanbu production unit has been developed and constructed by the Lurgi division of Air Liquide Engineering.
1 Over the fence: sales contract for gases (produced by an Air Liquide facility), as opposed to a sales contract for equipment enabling a customer to produce its own supplies of gases.
Slowly emerging from a crisis that reshuffled global growth, Air Liquide announced at year end 2010 new objectives for its ALMA program in terms of performance and responsibility. These objectives were revised at year end 2013 to factor in a slower than expected recovery in growth, in particular in Western Europe and Japan. Nevertheless, the Group accelerated its presence in new territories, including Turkey, Ukraine and Mexico, and strengthened its presence in China. These developments contributed to the increase, in eight years, of the developing economies' share of Gas & Services revenue from 15% to 28% in 2015.
In a weaker growth environment in the advanced economies, and particularly in Western Europe, Air Liquide intensified its acquisitions. At the end of 2012, two major home healthcare players joined the Group: LVL Médical in France and Gasmedi in Spain. Other acquisitions were completed to strengthen the Group’s positions in Healthcare in Poland, Scandinavia and Canada and in Industrial Merchant in Brazil, Russia, the Middle East and China.
In 2013 Air Liquide launched two initiatives to promote open innovation: i-Lab, innovation Lab, and ALIAD, the Group’s capital investment subsidiary to make minority investments in innovative technology start-ups. In 2014, the Group decides on new investments with the modernization of the Paris-Saclay Research Center, the creation of a center for the development of gas cylinders for industry and healthcare, and the launch of a technical center of excellence for cryogenic production technologies.
In 2015, Air Liquide inaugurated Cryocap™ in France, a unique industrial installation that enables the capture of CO2 released during hydrogen production via a cryogenic process. On a worldwide scale, Air Liquide contributes actively to the development of the hydrogen energy activity by accompanying automotive manufacturers launching fuel cell electric vehicles on the market. Air Liquide has stepped up the construction of hydrogen charging stations (United States, Japan, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands), the majority of which are accessible to the general public.
On May 23, 2016, the Group successfully closed its acquisition of Airgas, which will contribute to the company’s strategy of profitable growth over the long term. There is strong industrial and market logic to this acquisition, which will ideally position the company for future growth and value creation. The two businesses are highly complementary, and the transaction extends Air Liquide’s customer base through a unique multi-channel distribution network and a nationwide presence in the U.S.