Natural gas

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Natural gas
Natural gas Natural gas
Other names Marsh gas, Swamp gas
Molecular formula CH4
Appearance Clear Gas, Blue Flame
Density and phase 0.717 kg/m3, gas
Melting point −182.5°C (90.6 K) at 1 atm

25 °C (298 K) at 1.5 G Pa

Boiling point −161.6°C (111.55 K)
Triple point 90.7 K, 0.117 bar
MSDS External MSDS
EU classification Highly flammable (F+)
NFPA 704

R-phrases R12
S-phrases S2, S9, S16, S33
Flash point −188°C
Autoignition temperature 537°C
Maximum burning
Explosive limits 5–15%
Related compounds
Related alkanes Ethane
Related compounds Methanol
Except where noted otherwise, data are given for
materials in their standard state (at 25 °C, 100 kPa)
Infobox disclaimer and references
See methane for a more complete list.

Natural gas is a gaseous fossil fuel consisting primarily of methane. It is found in oil fields and natural gas fields, and in coal beds. When methane-rich gases are produced by the anaerobic decay of non-fossil organic material, these are referred to as biogas. Sources of biogas include swamps, marshes, and landfills (see landfill gas), as well as sewage sludge and manure by way of anaerobic digesters, in addition to enteric fermentation particularly in cattle. Natural gas is often informally referred to as simply gas, especially when compared to other energy sources such as electricity.

Chemical composition

The primary component of natural gas is methane (CH4), the shortest and lightest hydrocarbon molecule. It also contains heavier gaseous hydrocarbons such as ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10), as well as other sulphur containing gases, in varying amounts, see also natural gas condensate. Natural gas also contains and is the primary market source of helium.

Component wt. %
Methane (CH4) 80-95
Ethane (C2H6) 5-15
Propane (C3H8) and Butane (C4H10) < 5

Nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide and trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide, water and odorants can also be present . Mercury is also present in small amounts in natural gas extracted from some fields. The exact composition of natural gas varies between gas fields.

Organosulfur compounds and hydrogen sulfide are common contaminants which must be removed prior to most uses. Gas with a significant amount of sulfur impurities, such as hydrogen sulfide, is termed sour gas and often referred to as " acid gas". Processed Natural gas that is available to end-users is tasteless and odorless, however, before gas is distributed to end-users, it is odorized by adding small amounts of thiols, to assist in leak detection. Processed Natural gas is, in itself, harmless to the human body, however, natural gas is a simple asphyxiant and can kill if it displaces air to the point where the oxygen content will not support life.

Natural gas can also be hazardous to life and property through an explosion. Natural gas is lighter than air, and so tends to dissipate into the atmosphere. But when natural gas is confined, such as within a house, gas concentrations can reach explosive mixtures and, if ignited, result in blasts that could destroy buildings. Methane has a lower explosive limit of 5% in air, and an upper explosive limit of 15%.

Explosive concerns with compressed natural gas used in vehicles are almost non-existent, due to the escaping nature of the gas, and the need to maintain concentrations between 5% and 15% to trigger explosions.

Energy content and statistics

Quantities of natural gas are measured in normal cubic metres (corresponding to 0° C at 1 atm) or in standard cubic feet (corresponding to 60° F and 30 inHg). The gross heat of combustion of one normal cubic metre of commercial quality natural gas is around 39  megajoules (≈10.8  kWh), but this can vary by several percent. In US units, one standard cubic foot of natural gas produces around 1000  British Thermal Units (BTUs).

The actual heating value when the water formed does not condense is the net heat of combustion and can be as much as 10% less.

The price of natural gas varies greatly depending on location and type of consumer, but as of 2006 a price of $10 per 1000 cubic feet is typical in the US. This correponds to around $10 per million BTU's, or around $10 per gigajoule.

In the USA, at retail, natural gas is often sold in units of therms (th); 1 therm = 100,000 BTU. Wholesale transactions are generally done in decatherms (Dth), or in thousand decatherms (MDth), or in million decatherms (MMDth). A million decatherms is roughly a billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Storage and transport

Polyethylene gas main being laid in a trench.
Polyethylene gas main being laid in a trench.

The major difficulty in the use of natural gas is transportation and storage because of its low density. Natural gas pipelines are economical, but are impractical across oceans. Many existing pipelines in North America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians in colder climates to speak publicly of potential shortages.

LNG carriers can be used to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) across oceans, while tank trucks can carry liquefied or compressed natural gas (CNG) over shorter distances. They may transport natural gas directly to end-users, or to distribution points such as pipelines for further transport. These may have a higher cost, requiring additional facilities for liquefaction or compression at the production point, and then gasification or decompression at end-use facilities or into a pipeline.

In the past, the natural gas which was recovered in the course of recovering petroleum could not be profitably sold, and was simply burned at the oil field (known as flaring). This wasteful practice is now illegal in many countries, especially since it adds greenhouse gas pollution to the earth's atmosphere. Additionally, companies now recognize that value for the gas may be achieved with LNG, CNG, or other transportation methods to end-users in the future. The gas is now re- injected back into the formation for later recovery. This also assists oil pumping by keeping underground pressures higher. In Saudi Arabia, in the late 1970s, a "Master Gas System" was created, ending the need for flaring. The natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat for desalinization. Similarly, some landfills that also discharge methane gases have been set up to capture the methane and generate electricity.

Natural gas is often stored in underground caverns formed inside depleted gas reservoirs from previous gas wells, salt domes, or in tanks as liquefied natural gas. The gas is injected during periods of low demand and extracted during periods of higher demand. Storage near the ultimate end-users helps to best meet volatile demands, but this may not always be practicable.

Natural gas crisis

Blue flames of a burner on a natural gas stove.
Blue flames of a burner on a natural gas stove.

Many politicians and prominent figures in North America have spoken publicly about a possible natural gas crisis. This includes former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and Ontario Minister of Energy Dwight Duncan.

The natural gas crisis is typically described by the increasing price of natural gas in the U.S. over the last few years, due to the decline in indigenous supply and the increase in demand for electricity generation. Indigenous supply has fallen from 20,570,295 MMcf in 2001 to 19,144,768 MMcf in 2005. Because of the drop in production (exacerbated by the dramatic hit to production that came from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and the continuing growth in demand, the price has become so high that many industrial users, mainly in the petrochemical industry, have closed their plants causing loss of jobs. Greenspan has suggested that a solution to the natural gas crisis is the import of LNG.

This solution is both capital intensive and politically charged due to the public perception that LNG terminals are explosive risks, especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is responsible for maintaining their security.

New or expanded LNG terminals create tough infrastructure problems and require high capital spending. LNG terminals require a very spacious—at least 40 feet (12.2 m) deep— harbour, as well as being sheltered from wind and waves. These "suitable" sites are thus deep in well-populated seaports, which are also burdened with right-of-way concerns for LNG pipelines, or conversely, required to also host the LNG expansion plant facilities and end use (petrochemical) plants amidst the high population densities of major cities, with the associated fumes, multiple serious risks to safety.

Typically, to attain "well-sheltered" waters, suitable harbour sites are well up rivers or estuaries, which are unlikely to be dredged deep enough. Since these very large vessels must move slowly and ponderously in restricted waters, the transit times to and from the terminal become costly, as multiple tugboats and security boats shelter and safeguard the large vessels. Operationally, LNG tankers are (for example, in Boston) effectively given sole use of the harbor, forced to arrive and depart during non-peak hours, and precluded from occupying the same harbour until the first is well-departed. These factors increase operating costs and make capital investment less attractive.

To substantially increase the amount of LNG used to supply natural gas to North America, not only must "re-gasification" plants be built on North American shores -- difficult for the reasons stated above -- someone also must put substantial, new liquefaction stations in Indonesia, the Middle East, and Africa, in order to concentrate the gas generally associated with oil production in those areas. A substantial expansion of the fleet of LNG carriers also must occur, to move the huge amount of fuel needed to make up for the coming shortfall in Northeast America.


Power generation

Natural gas is a major source for electricity generation through the use of gas turbines and steam turbines. Particularly high efficiencies can be achieved through combining gas turbines with a steam turbine in combined cycle mode. Natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and produces less greenhouse gas per unit energy released. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal . Combined cycle power generation using natural gas is thus the cleanest source of power available using fossil fuels, and this technology is widely used wherever gas can be obtained at a reasonable cost. Fuel cell technology may eventually provide cleaner options for converting natural gas into electricity, but as yet it is not price-competitive. Also, the natural gas supply is said to peak around the year 2030, 20 years after the peak of oil. It is also projected that the world's supply of natural gas should be exhausted around the year 2085.


Natural gas can be used to produce hydrogen that can be used in hydrogen vehicles. One common method is the Hydrogen reformer.

Natural gas vehicles

Compressed natural gas ( methane) is used as a clean alternative to other automobile fuels such as gasoline (petrol) and diesel. As of 2005, the countries with the largest number of natural gas vehicles were Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, Italy, and India. The energy efficiency is generally equal to that of gasoline engines, but lower compared with modern diesel engines, partially due to the fact that natural gas engines function using the Otto cycle, but research is on its way to improve the process ( Westport Cycle).

Liquified petroleum gas (a propane and butane blend) is also used to fuel vehicles. LPG and CNG vehicle fuel systems are not compatible. CNG also requires higher pressure tanks which are typically much heavier than those used for LPG.

Residential domestic use

Natural gas is supplied to homes, where it is used for such purposes as cooking in natural gas-powered ranges and/or ovens, natural gas-heated clothes dryers, and heating/ cooling. Home or other building heating may include boilers, furnaces, and water heaters. CNG is used in rural homes without connections to piped-in public utility services, or with portable grills.


Natural gas is a major feedstock for the production of ammonia, via the Haber process, for use in fertilizer production.


Natural gas is also used in the manufacture of fabrics, glass, steel, plastics, paint, and other products.


In any form, a minute amount of odorant such as t-butyl mercaptan, with a rotting-cabbage-like smell, is added to the otherwise colorless and odorless gas, so that leaks can be detected before a fire or explosion occurs. Sometimes a related compound, thiophane is used, with a rotten-egg smell. Adding odorant to natural gas began in the United States after the 1937 New London School explosion. The buildup of gas in the school went unnoticed, killing three hundred students and faculty when it ignited. Odorants are considered non-toxic in the extremely low concentrations occurring in natural gas delivered to the end user.

In mines, where methane seeping from rock formations has no odour, sensors are used, and mining apparatus has been specifically developed to avoid ignition sources, e.g., the Davy lamp.

Explosions caused by natural gas leaks occur a few times each year. Individual homes, small businesses and boats are most frequently affected when an internal leak builds up gas inside the structure. Frequently, the blast will be enough to significantly damage a building but leave it standing. In these cases, the people inside tend to have minor to moderate injuries. Occasionally, the gas can collect in high enough quantities to cause a deadly explosion, disintegrating one or more buildings in the process. The gas usually dissipates readily outdoors, but can sometimes collect in dangerous quantities if weather conditions are right. Also, considering the tens of millions of structures that use the fuel, the individual risk of using natural gas is very low.

Some gas fields yield sour gas containing hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This untreated gas is toxic. Amine gas treating, an industrial scale process which removes acidic gaseous components, is often used to remove hydrogen sulfide from natural gas.

Extraction of natural gas (or oil) leads to decrease in pressure in the reservoir. This in turn may lead to subsidence at ground level. Subsidence may affect ecosystems, waterways, sewer and water supply systems, foundations, etc.

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