Despite living in a world literally surrounded by it, many folks don’t know enough about the wonders of natural gas. Granted, at the surface level, it might come off as rather uninteresting – colorless, shapeless, and odorless in its pure form – but natural gas is also combustible; abundant in the United States; and, when burned, gives off a great deal of energy with fewer emissions than many other fuel sources. So, to get to know this seeming mystical resource a bit better, keep reading below to extract all the info you’d ever need to know.
So, what exactly is natural gas anyway?
As its name would suggest, natural gas is indeed a gas – one that’s predominantly composed of methane. And, like many of its cousin, non-renewable energy sources, it is also a fossil fuel that has formed from the decaying remains of pre-historic plant and animal life. In fact, we can think of natural gas (or oil or coal, for that matter) as organic material that humans prevent from complete decay since we extract it and turn it into fuel and other products.
Where does natural gas come from, and how does it form?
While natural gas (methane) appears in the earth in a variety of forms, there are two main types of it that humans make the most of, and each comes about in its own way.
- Thermogenic Methane –
- Hundreds of millions of years ago, tiny sea plants and animals died, and their decaying remains began to build up in thick layers upon the ocean floor. Over a long time, these layers were buried under more and more layers of sand, silt, mud, rock, and other debris. The pressure of all that weight, combined with the extremely high temperatures of the earth’s core heat, compressed and broke down the carbon bonds of the decaying organic matter and changed its form – some into rocks of coal, some into liquid crude oil, and some into natural gas.
- Biogenic Methane –
- Natural gas also forms through the transformation of organic matter by tiny methane-producing microorganisms called methanogens. These microscopic creatures (which also live in the intestines of most animals, including humans) consume and chemically break down organic matter in areas near the surface of the earth that are devoid of oxygen, and give off the methane gas as byproduct. One example of biogenic methane that you’re likely already familiar with is landfill gas.
How difficult is it to transport and consume natural gas?
It’s relatively easy, actually. Once the natural gas has been extracted and refined, companies can move the product all throughout the continental United States using a highly-integrated, natural gas pipeline network.
Consisting of about 3 million miles of mainlines and other pipelines that link natural gas production areas and storage facilities with consumers, this intricate natural gas transportation system delivered more than 24 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas during 2014 to about 73 million customers.
In terms of cleanliness, how “green” is natural gas when compared to other fossil fuels?
When we burn any fossil fuel, it releases different elements, compounds, and solid particles into the atmosphere and contributes to air pollution. Coal and oil have very complex molecular formations, and when we burn them, they release high amounts of harmful emissions including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gases. In contrast, the methane in natural gas has a simple molecular make-up: CH4. When we burn it, natural gas emits only carbon dioxide and water vapor – the same two components humans exhale when we breathe. And although burning natural gas still emits greenhouse gases, it emits almost 30% less CO2 than oil, and 45% less CO2 than coal.
What do we use natural gas for?
Back before we really understood how to take advantage of natural gas, humans used to burn it off as a waste byproduct while drilling for and refining crude oil. However, we’ve since wizened up and improved our technologies to use it in a variety of ways, making natural gas into a major energy source for the United States.
In 2014 alone, the U.S. used about 26.8 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas – the equivalent of 27.5 quadrillion British thermal units (BTU) – which accounted for 28% of the total U.S. energy use that year. And we used that natural gas as a raw material for many products – including paints, fertilizer, plastics, antifreeze, dyes, photographic film, medicines, and explosives. We also used it as a major fuel to produce steel, glass, paper, clothing, brick, and electricity, as well as for automobiles and climate control in buildings. In fact, about half of all the homes in the United States use natural gas as their main heating fuel, and some homes and businesses even use it for cooking, heating water, drying clothes, and outdoor lighting.
BONUS Fact! – The Ancient Lore of Natural Gas
Natural gas has been affecting human existence since long before we began extracting it from deep within the earth. In what was deemed a mysterious and otherworldly phenomenon, lightning once ignited natural gas fissure seeping from the earth’s surface, where a continuous flame would continually persist. The most famous of these occurred near 1,000 B.C., on Mt. Parnassus where a goat herdsman came across what looked like a “burning spring” of flame rising from a fissure in the rock. The Greeks, believing it to be of divine origin, built a temple around the flame, which would house a priestess who came to be known as the Oracle of Delphi, giving out prophecies she claimed to have seen inside the fire.
And now that we better understand how this great source of power works, may we keep enjoying all the wonders and benefits that natural gas has to offer us – even without any oracle to interpret its flames.