Gas Cylinder Setup and Use

Jun 30, 2014

This month's instalment discusses the laboratory deployment of gas cylinders with appropriate pressure regulators, gas filtration, and gas fittings, as well as the question of cylinder retirement.

A previous "GC Connections" instalment (1) discussed the intake and disposition of compressed gas cylinders, including verifying gas cylinders and their content upon receipt, safely moving and securing them in place, and organizing them by their current use. After cylinders are in place in the laboratory, the next steps are to attach appropriate gas regulators, tubing, filters, and fittings to bring the high-purity gas supplies to one or more gas chromatographs.

Pressure Regulators

Pressure regulators are unsung heroes in the laboratory. They accomplish the expansion of high-pressure cylinder gases from dangerous levels to what can reasonably be handled by laboratory instruments while maintaining nearly constant output pressures and — if correctly matched to the application — not contaminating the gas stream. Of course, pressure regulator selection, installation, and maintenance are essential for obtaining the best performance. But before discussing the whys and whats of regulators, here's a brief description of how they work.

In Control: Laboratory pressure regulators are designed to expand gases from cylinder pressures as high as 3000 psig (20.7 MPa) down to operating pressures as low as 10–20 psig (150–275 kPa). Gas-tank regulators are mechanical devices with springs, screws, and a counterbalancing diaphragm. Electronic pressure control (EPC) has not yet found its way into the tank realm in any significant way, although some laboratory hydrogen generators incorporate EPC. Electronic pressure control of in-instrument gases will be covered in a future "GC Connections" instalment.

Figure 1: Mechanical gas-pressure regulator: (a) The adjustment knob is fully withdrawn and no pressure is applied to the tensioning spring — the poppet valve is closed and no gas flows. (b) The adjustment knob is turned clockwise and advanced into the regulator. There is tension on the spring so that the poppet valve is contacted and gas flows to the outlet. 1 = inlet connection, 2 = outlet connection, 3 = poppet valve, 4 = flexible diaphragm, 5 = tensioning spring, 6 = adjustment knob. The inlet gas chamber is coloured red; the output chamber with pressure-controlled gas is shown in green.
Figure 1 shows a simplified diagram of a typical single-stage mechanical gas-pressure regulator such as what is found at the gas tank or sometimes in-line as part of a manifolded gas distribution setup. The regulator consists of a two-piece sealed housing with the internal volumes separated by a flexible diaphragm. The outlet gas pressure exerts force on one side of the diaphragm and a spring pushes in the opposite direction. The amount of force exerted by the tensioning spring on the diaphragm determines the output pressure level. A pressure adjustment knob turns a screw that increases or decreases the force on the spring and diaphragm.

In Figure 1(a), the adjustment knob is fully turned out and the spring exerts no force on the diaphragm: The pressure on the outside of the diaphragm is equal to ambient pressure. Gas at the tank pressure has entered the regulator at the inlet connection, and the poppet valve below the diaphragm is fully seated so that no gas flows through it. The upper shaft of the poppet is not in contact with the actuating seat that is attached to the diaphragm.

In Figure 1(b), the adjustment knob has been turned clockwise and its shaft has moved downwards to exert force on the spring and diaphragm. This movement has caused the actuating seat under the diaphragm to contact the upper shaft of the poppet valve and move it downwards, which in turn unseats the poppet and allows gas to flow into the outlet chamber. As pressure builds up in the outlet chamber, the diaphragm is forced upwards against the tensioning spring. The regulator settles into a constant outlet pressure when the spring force and the pneumatic force are balanced as gas flows out of the regulator.