Natural Gases and the Environment

With the world’s current focus on global warming and the actions being undertaken to address this threat, it makes sense to better understand natural gas’s impact on the environment. This month we focus on methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, and its main benefits and detriments.

Methane in the Environment

Methane, a naturally occurring hydrocarbon designated as CH4, has multiple sources and uses that speak to its availability and versatility. Its primary use is for energy production, providing fuel for electrical plants, but it is also used for powering industrial machinery, cooking, and for producing other useful compounds or products like fertilizer, ammonia, chloroform, formaldehyde, some freons and even rocket fuel.

Lighter than air, this colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas, is formed by the bacterial decay of natural materials (just like propane and other fossil fuels) and is commonly found in nature in wetlands and marshes, and as a byproduct of landfills, septic tanks, sewer systems, and oil/petroleum drilling.

The Pluses and Minuses of Methane

When burned, methane produces more heat and light energy by mass than other hydrocarbons and significantly less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to smog and unhealthy air. Moreover, on its own, methane gas is not inherently harmful to the environment, however, it is still a very powerful greenhouse gas that in high concentrations and in the presence of carbon dioxide and water vapor, can absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere which many believe is a key factor in global warming. (For example, 1 pound of methane traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide.) Because of this, it is widely believed that capturing methane before it is released into the atmosphere can help reduce these effects.

Putting “Methane Waste” to Good Use

At present, many landfills across the US have already begun capturing methane and converting it to an energy resource through utilizing a system of pipes and big tanks that collect it as it rises from the decaying material. Oil well drillers that typically burn methane that is released during the drilling process due to the high costs associated with capturing and transporting it safely are also looking at new ways to capture and contain the releasing gas. Similarly, educators at MIT have reportedly been pursuing affordable and efficient ways to convert methane gas to derivatives of methanol, a liquid that can be used as automotive fuel or for producing other chemical products, so the search is on to take even better advantage of this useful gas.

We at Wright Propane are excited about the growing prospects for natural gas usage and applaud any and all steps designed to help preserve our environment.

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