What is Natural Gas Made Of and How Is It Used?
Natural gas is supplied to millions of homes across the U.S., but while we’re all familiar with using it for cooking, we don’t often pause to learn what natural gas is, what it’s used for besides in our homes, and why it’s often the subject of so much controversy. Read on to learn all of those things and more.
Natural gas definition
All fossil fuels are made up of organic matter (such as deceased organisms, plant matter, and animals) that found its way to the bottom of bodies of water millions of years ago. As the sediment built up on top of this matter, adding pressure, it was also subject to heat from the Earth. This creates the perfect environment for the matter to break down. In the case of natural gas, this organic matter breaks down into gas that can then be tapped into, contained, refined, and used for fuel.
What is natural gas?
As we learned above, natural gas is the result of organic matter that died millions of years ago. Natural gas is consequently made up of methane, as well as smaller amounts of other gases, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor.
What is an example of natural gas?
While natural gas in its pure form (straight from the Earth) may be comprised of a range of gases, the gas we use in our homes is nearly entirely pure methane. Methane is the gas that is produced when anything organic breaks down, including under landfills.
How do we get natural gas?
Once a gas deposit is found, a test will be carried out to determine that the deposit is large enough to be worth tapping and that extracting it will be relatively easy. If everything looks good, the area will be cleared and production wells drilled.
Next, a metal and concrete casing is installed in the hole, and a collection pump is built above it. The gas will then be extracted via vertical drilling, horizontal drilling, fracking, or acidizing, depending on the type of natural gas deposit.
Vertical drilling is the most common type of extraction and was the only method until around 1980. This is used when the deposit is near the surface. However, as we have to drill deeper to extract gas, the other methods are often needed.
This raw natural gas is then transported to a collection point and refined. Pre-processing will remove water and solid particles, and then is transported (through a pipeline) to a processing plant.
This second processing round is where any undesirable gases are extracted. There are often acid gases, which are removed by a membrane or amine treatment. Any remaining water vapor is removed, followed by mercury, which can be extracted through activated carbon. Lastly, nitrogen and liquids are removed by cryogenic distillation.
Why is it called natural gas?
Simply, because it’s formed naturally within the ground. Whenever organic matter breaks down, gases are produced. Natural gas is simply this process on a large scale – such as all the creatures and organisms that died in an ocean millions of years ago, that were trapped under layers of sediment that formed overtime on top of it.
What are the disadvantages of natural gas?
While natural gas is natural, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Here are some of the disadvantages of using natural gas as a fuel source:
- Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The natural gas deposits take millions of years to form, and so new deposits aren’t developing quickly.
- It’s extremely flammable, which is why we still hear about explosions and must be extremely careful around gas canisters and other sources of gas.
- It’s toxic and doesn’t naturally have an odor. That gas smell we are all familiar with is added so that we are aware when there is a leak, as gas can kill us in high volumes.
- Installing drills and infrastructure for natural gas is expensive, as getting it from extraction sites to processing plants must be done by pipeline. That means miles of pipes must be laid to transport the gas.
- The natural gas distribution across the world is not even – areas that were once underwater (such as many deserts) have a much higher likelihood of having large natural gas (and oil) deposits. The U.S. has around 5% of the world’s total, while Russia has around 24%, Iran around 17%, and Qatar around 12%. That means they have a lot of control, and other countries must pay a premium or look for alternatives.
- It pollutes the environment and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Methane (natural gas in a pure form) and carbon dioxide (its byproduct) are two of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect, which is warming the planet and increasing pollution. The process of putting in drills, pipelines, and processing plants is also extremely disruptive to the surrounding area.
Is natural gas really clean?
No, it’s just cleaner than other fossil fuels. Coal and oil are particularly dirty fuel sources – that’s why you can see the byproducts with your own eyes, such as the soot above a coal fire or the dirt in a tailpipe. The “dirtiness” of natural gas comes in the unseen gases it produces when burned.
What are the 3 biggest uses of natural gas?
The 3 biggest uses of natural gas are:
1) Burned for heat to generate electricity – this equates to around 34% of all natural gas used1
2) Used for industrial purposes, which includes:
- Creating chemicals
- In food and beverage production
- To create mineral products
- In mechanical engineering
- To make vehicles
- In construction
- Paper and printing
- Textiles and leather
- And other material production 3) The final biggest use is residential, which is used in our homes for cooking and sometimes heating.
How long will natural gas last?
Current estimates believe that natural gas will only last another 52 years if we continue to discover deposits and use natural gas at the same rate2.
Will natural gas run out?
Yes, there will come a point where there is no longer enough to fuel the billions of people on the planet who use it daily. While we may be able to use biomethane (natural gas created by landfills and livestock), we’ll need to start using electricity as much as possible, because electricity can be created by clean, renewable sources.
What are the 4 main natural gases?
The 4 main natural gases are:
- Methane (which comprises 70-90% of all natural gas)
- Propane You are likely familiar with the latter two if you use bottled gas instead of mainline gas.
What natural gas is used in homes?
Natural gas in homes is largely methane, which is used for cooking and heating. Some popular uses for natural gas in the home include your heating and cooling.
Why is natural gas so cheap?
Natural gas is cheap here in the U.S. because we still have an abundance of it, and because we’ve largely had more mild winters in recent years, which has reduced the heating needs for those using gas heating. (Plenty of supply, but low demand, which drives down prices.) Many people have also chosen to move to electric stovetops because they are easier to clean and can offer more even heat distribution.
What are the positives and negatives of natural gas?
The positives of natural gas are that it’s “cleaner” than other fossil fuels, is more energy-efficient than coal, and is readily available here in the U.S.
The negatives are:
- While cleaner, it is still a fossil fuel that emits harmful gases
- It’s toxic and highly flammable, which means accidents can still happen in homes and industrial settings
- It’s not renewable, and supplies will run out within the next 50-100 years
- Extracting and transporting it is highly disruptive to the surrounding area
- It can only be transported via pipelines
- It requires a lot of underground storage if it cannot be processed immediately
- Fracking requires huge amounts of water which result in the pollution of local waterways and soil
What is the future of natural gas?
Natural gas is often presented as the “best” fossil fuel, but it fails to address the huge negatives using it still presents. It’s extremely disruptive to the surrounding areas, and while it does burn more cleanly than coal or oil, there are plenty of opportunities for pollution to occur earlier in the extraction process. If we want to see our planet protected for our future generations, we must move away from fossil fuels as much as possible.
The future of traditional natural gas is not bright – we only have around 52 years of use left at our current rate of global consumption. If consumption increases, we may have less. This makes it particularly important to start creating better infrastructure for renewable energy production, as our lives become increasingly technology-dependent.
If you want to do your part to protect the environment and increase the demand for clean, renewable energy, consider finding more ways to reduce your carbon footprint and consider making the switch to renewable energy. You can find out more about your carbon footprint and how you can help reduce it here: What is the Average American Carbon Footprint?
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