Natural gas

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Template:Chembox header | Methane
Natural gas Natural gas
Template:Chembox header | General
Other names Marsh gas, Swamp gas
Molecular formula CH4
Appearance Clear Gas, Blue Flame
Template:Chembox header | Properties
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 GPa

Boiling point −161.6°C (111.55 K)
Triple point 90.7 K, 0.117 bar
Template:Chembox header | Hazards
External MSDS External MSDS
EU classification Highly flammable (F+)
NFPA 704 Template:NFPA 704
R-phrases Template:R12
S-phrases Template:S2, Template:S9, Template:S16, Template:S33
Flash point −188°C
Autoignition temperature 482-632°C
Maximum burning
Explosive limits 5–15%
Template:Chembox header | Related compounds
Related alkanes Ethane
Related compounds Methanol
Template:Chembox header | 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 but including significant quantities of ethane, butane, propane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide.[1] It is found in oil fields and natural gas fields, and in coal beds (as coalbed methane). 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. Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo extensive processing to remove almost all materials other than methane. The by-products of that processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, elemental sulfur, and sometimes helium and nitrogen.

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 sulfur 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) 70-90
Ethane (C2H6) 5-15
Propane (C3H8) and Butane (C4H10) < 5
CO2, N2, H2S, etc. balance

Nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide and trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide, water and odorants can also be present [2]. Mercury is also present in small amounts in natural gas extracted from some fields[3]. 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; gas with sulfur or carbon dioxide impurities is 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 odorants (mixtures of t-butyl mercaptan, isopropyl mercaptan, tetrahydrothiophene, dimethyl sulfide and other sulfur compounds), 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 escape 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, statistics and pricing

Quantities of natural gas are measured in normal cubic meters (corresponding to 0°C at 101.325 kPaA) or in standard cubic feet (corresponding to 60°F and 14.73 PSIA). The gross heat of combustion of one normal cubic meter 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 1,030 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 2007 a price of $7 per 1000 cubic feet is typical in the United States. This corresponds to around $7 per million BTU's, or around $7 per gigajoule. Natural gas in the United States is traded as a futures contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Each contract is for 10,000 MMBTU (gigajoules), or 10 billion BTU's. Thus, if the price of gas is $7 per million BTU's on the NYMEX, the contract is worth $70,000. In the United States, at retail, natural gas is often sold in units of therms (th); 1 therm = 100,000 BTU. Gas meters measure the volume of gas used, and this is converted to therms by multiplying the volume by the energy content of the gas used during that period, which varies slightly over time. 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.

Natural gas is also traded as a commodity in Europe, principally at the United Kingdom NBP and related European hubs, such as the TTF in the Netherlands.

In the rest of the world, LNG and LPG is traded in metric tons or mmBTU as spot deliveries. Long term contracts are signed in metric tons - and to convert from one system to the other requires should better be described here, than a very isolated market. A cubic foot is a volumetric measure, MT is weight. The LNG and LPG is transported by special ships/containers, as the gas is liquified - LPG cryonic. The specification of each LNG/LPG cargo will usually contain the energy content, but this information is in general not available to the public.

Natural gas processing

A natural gas processing plant

The image below is a schematic block flow diagram of a typical natural gas processing plant. It shows the various unit processes used to convert raw natural gas into sales gas pipelined to the end user markets.

The block flow diagram also shows how processing of the raw natural gas yields byproduct sulfur, byproduct ethane, and natural gas liquids (NGL) propane, butanes and natural gasoline (denoted as pentanes +).[4][5][6][7][8]

Schematic flow diagram of a typical natural gas processing plant

Storage and transport

File:Polyethylene gas main.jpg
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 representing colder areas 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. 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.

With 15 nations accounting for 84% of the world-wide production, access to natural gas has become a significant factor in international economics and politics. In this respect, control over the pipelines is a major strategic factor.[9]


Power generation

Natural gas is a major source of 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 carbon dioxide 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.[10] 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 expected 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 could be exhausted around the year 2085.


Natural gas can be used to produce hydrogen, with one common method being the hydrogen reformer. Hydrogen has various applications: it is a primary feedstock for the chemical industry, a hydrogenating agent, an important commodity for oil refineries, and a fuel source in hydrogen vehicles.

Natural gas vehicles

File:WMATA 3006.jpg
A Metrobus using natural gas

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, India and Bangladesh.[11] The energy efficiency is generally equal to that of gasoline engines, but lower compared with modern diesel engines. Benzine vehicles converted to run on gas suffer of the low-compression ratio their engines have, resulting in a cropping of delivered power while running on natural gas (10%-15%). CNG factory-made engines, however, use a higher compression ratio, due to the high number of octane (120-130) of this fuel.

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, heating/cooling and central heating. 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. However, due to CNG being less economical than LPG, LPG (Propane) is the dominant source of rural gas.


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


Russian aircraft manufacturer Tupolev is currently running a development program to produce LNG- and hydrogen-powered aircraft.[12] The program has been running since the mid-1970s, and seeks to develop LNG and hydrogen variants of the Tu-204 and Tu-334 passenger aircraft, and also the Tu-330 cargo aircraft. It claims that at current market prices, an LNG-powered aircraft would cost 5,000 roubles less to operate per ton, roughly equivalent to 60%, with considerable reductions to carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions.


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


File:Natural gas production world.PNG
Natural gas production by country (countries in brown and then red have the largest production)

Natural gas

Natural gas is commercially produced from oil fields and natural gas fields. Gas produced from oil wells is called casinghead gas or associated gas. The natural gas industry is producing gas from increasingly more challenging resource types: sour gas, tight gas, shale gas and coalbed methane.

The world's largest gas field by far is Qatar's offshore North Field, estimated to have 25 trillion cubic metres[13] (900 trillion cubic feet) of gas in place - enough to last more than 200 years at optimum production levels. The second largest natural gas field is the South Pars Gas Field in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Connected to Qatar's North Field, it has estimated reserves of 8 to 14 trillion cubic metres[14] (280-500 trillion cubic feet) of gas; see List of natural gas fields.

Town gas

Town gas is a mixture of methane and other gases, mainly the highly toxic carbon monoxide, that can be used in a similar way to natural gas and can be produced by treating coal chemically. This is a historic technology, still used as 'best solution' in some local circumstances, although coal gasification is not usually economic at current gas prices. However, depending upon infrastructure considerations, it remains a future possibility.


Methanogenic archaea are responsible for all biological sources of methane, some in symbiotic relationships with other life forms, including termites, ruminants, and cultivated crops. Methane released directly into the atmosphere would be considered a pollutant, however, methane in the atmosphere is oxidised, producing carbon dioxide and water. Methane in the atmosphere has a half life of seven years, meaning that every seven years, half of the methane present is converted to carbon dioxide and water.

File:U.S. Natural Gas Production 1900-2005.png
U.S. Natural Gas Production 1900 - 2005 Source: EIA

Future sources of methane, the principal component of natural gas, include landfill gas, biogas and methane hydrate. Biogas, and especially landfill gas, are already used in some areas, but their use could be greatly expanded. Landfill gas is a type of biogas, but biogas usually refers to gas produced from organic material that has not been mixed with other waste.

Landfill gas is created from the decomposition of waste in landfills. If the gas is not removed, the pressure may get so high that it works its way to the surface, causing damage to the landfill structure, unpleasant odor, vegetation die-off and an explosion hazard. The gas can be vented to the atmosphere, flared or burned to produce electricity or heat. Experimental systems were being proposed for use in parts Hertfordshire, UK and Lyon in France.

Once water vapor is removed, about half of landfill gas is methane. Almost all of the rest is carbon dioxide, but there are also small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. There are usually trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and siloxanes, but their concentration varies widely. Landfill gas cannot be distributed through natural gas pipelines unless it is cleaned up to the same quality. It is usually more economical to combust the gas on site or within a short distance of the landfill using a dedicated pipeline. Water vapor is often removed, even if combusting the gas on site. If low temperatures condense out the water from the gas, siloxanes can be lowered as well because they tend to condense out with the water vapour. Other non-methane components may also be removed in order to meet emission standards, to prevent fouling of the equipment or for environmental considerations. Co-firing landfill gas with natural gas improves combustion, which lowers emissions.

Biogas is usually produced using agricultural waste materials, such as otherwise unusable parts of plants and manure. Biogas can also be produced by separating organic materials from waste that otherwise goes to landfills. This is more efficient than just capturing the landfill gas it produces. Using materials that would otherwise generate no income, or even cost money to get rid of, improves the profitability and energy balance of biogas production.

Anaerobic lagoons produce biogas from manure, while biogas reactors can be used for manure or plant parts. Like landfill gas, biogas is mostly methane and carbon dioxide, with small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. However, with the exception of pesticides, there are usually lower levels of contaminants.


A speculative source of enormous quantities of methane is from methane hydrate, found under sediments in the oceans. However, as of 2006 no technology has been developed to recover it economically.


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 odor, sensors are used, and mining apparatuses have 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. However, 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. [15]

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.

Natural Gas heating systems are the leading cause of carbon monoxide deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. When a natural gas heating system malfunctions, it produces odorless carbon monoxide. With no fumes or smoke to give warning, poisoning victims are easily asphyxiated by the carbon monoxide.

See also


External links

Natural gas vehicles


  1. Natural gas overview
  2. WVU's AFVTP - Propane Review, West Virginia University
  3. Using Gas Geochemistry to Assess Mercury Risk, OilTracers, 2006
  4. Natural Gas Processing: The Crucial Link Between Natural Gas Production and Its Transportation to Market
  5. Example Gas Plant
  6. From Purification to Liquefaction Gas Processing
  7. Feed-Gas Treatment Design for the Pearl GTL Project
  8. Benefits of integrating NGL extraction and LNG liquefaction
  9. The Contours of the New Cold War
  10. Natural Gas and the Environment
  11. International Statistics (IANG website page)
  12. PSC Tupolev - Development of Cryogenic Fuel Aircraft
  13. Background note: Qatar
  14. "Pars Special Economic Energy Zone". Pars Special Economic Energy Zone. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
  15. - Processing Natural Gas

Template:Sustainability and energy development group

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