What Is Natural Gas? Overview of a Rapidly Growing Resource

What Is Natural Gas? An Overview of a Rapidly Growing Resource

by | Educational, Energy, Natural Gas

Natural gas is one of the major energy sources used throughout the world. Its use has been steadily increasing in recent years, and now accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s current energy supply. Natural gas in its natural state is odorless, colorless, and — as the name states — a gas, though it’s often converted to liquid form for transportation and storage.  

Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel that’s composed of the remains of prehistoric life (or their fossils). All three of these fossil fuels formed deep underground over millions of years. There are significant differences between them — for instance, in their natural states, oil is liquid, coal is solid, and natural gas is gaseous. But there are also subtle yet important differences in their composition that makes natural gas more ideal in today’s world of energy consumption.  

Natural gas emits less greenhouse gas in comparison to coal and oil, which has led to its increasing usage all over the world. This article will cover what natural gas is made from, how it is made, where it’s found, and how it’s produced and used all over the world.  

Are Gas and Natural Gas the Same?  

The term gas can refer to any gaseous substance from hydrogen ( the simplest and most abundant element in the universe) to nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. In the world of energy, however, the term gas is usually reserved for one of two main culprits: natural gas or propane.  

How Are Gas and Natural Gas Different? 

Propane gas and natural gas differ in many key ways, starting with their composition and source: natural gas is found naturally, while propane is produced as a byproduct by distilling it from oil refining or even natural gas processing. For example, natural gas is found in natural gas fields and in the form of shale gas, which is trapped deep within shale rocks below the Earth’s surface. 

Propane is less common for everyday use than natural gas, but it’s still a very beneficial form of energy that is used in many ways. It is made during oil refining and, increasingly, during natural gas processing where it is separated using refrigeration and distillation before pressurization. This allows propane to be stored as a liquid in tanks, commonly found at gas stations all across North America.  

Propane gas delivers more than twice the BTUs (British Thermal Units, a common measurement for heat energy) than natural gas, making a propane furnace more efficient to heat homes and other spaces. Propane is also considered a more “green” fuel, as it has minimal environmental impact both during extraction and combustion. Still, you will typically only find propane used for things like backyard barbeque grills and fireplaces or outdoor fire pits, while natural gas is used for a whole lot more.  

Natural gas has many beneficial properties that set it apart from propane. These include its availability (it’s available in its natural state without needing to be distilled from other gasses) and its subsequent delivery method (it comes through a pipeline on demand right to your home).  

These properties make it convenient for heating homes, cooking with gas stoves, and using in other activities where you can hook up to a mainline and not have to worry about refilling a tank.  Furthermore, liquefied natural gas, or LNG, can be shipped from extraction sites and used to generate electricity with major energy companies, like Tara Energy. This is something that is not done with propane on a large commercial scale. 

How Is Natural Gas Used?  

Natural gas is used in many different ways, from feedstock in power plants to direct heating of your home via your furnace. The key component of natural gas is the energy that releases upon combustion. This is what almost all uses of natural gas are centered on, whether it’s large-scale power production or powering a small-scale Bunsen burner flame.  

What Are the 3 Biggest Uses of Natural Gas? 

There are three main uses of natural gas that are much bigger than others: electricity generation, industrial applications, and residential heating. 

Electricity Generation 

Using natural gas for electricity generation is common — and this market continues to grow as more countries and regions look to minimize their carbon emissions but lack access to renewable energy sources such as hydro or large-scale wind and solar. The worldwide percentage of electricity generated by natural gas rose from below 10% in 1990 to nearly 25% by 2017. 

Industrial Use 

Many industries use natural gas as a fuel and also as a feedstock, or raw material for producing chemicals, fertilizers, and other products. The industrial sector currently accounts for about one-third of all natural gas consumption in the United States. Natural gas is also the source of about one-third of this sector’s energy consumption in total. 

Heating 

Heating is the most common and most widely used application of natural gas. Homes all across North America (and elsewhere in the world) have direct line hookups to receive natural gas through gas pipelines that are connected directly to houses, apartment complexes, and townhomes, as well as office towers and other buildings. It’s a reliable, steady source of energy that can burn for long periods of time with low comparative costs, making it perfect for these settings. Heating currently makes up about 16% of total U.S. natural gas consumption. 

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What Are the 4 Natural Gases? 

The four natural gases are what comprise the extracted resource we know as natural gas. These four naturally occurring gases make up the vast majority of natural gas and include methane, which can be as much as 90% of the total composition, as well as propane, ethane, and butane. Each of these have uses on their own, but are most utilized when bound together in this form. 

Where Does Gas Come From?  

Natural Gas - Uses and Where it Comes From - Gas Pipeline imagesource

As its name implies, natural gas is natural. It comes from deep underground in reservoirs that have held this resource for millions of years after it materialized out of the decomposing organic matter of prehistoric life forms. Geologists can often locate these reserves with replicable success, but getting gas out of the ground is another challenge that requires a lot more machinery and patience.  

How Is Natural Gas Formed?  

Natural gas is formed from millions of years of intense heat and pressure. Over eons, layers of decomposing organic matter are exposed to sedimentary buildup under the surface of the Earth. This matter breaks down and then collects in natural gas resource deposits, containing the energy that was originally found within the organic material. The energy is stored in the form of chemical bonds inside the gas, making this a form of fossil fuel energy.  

How Is Natural Gas Extracted? 

In conventional gas deposits, natural gas generally flows up easily to the surface through wells.  

In the United States, and in increasingly more countries, natural gas is also produced from shale and other sedimentary rock formations. The extraction process involves forcing a high pressure mixture of water, chemicals, and sand underground in a process called hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. Natural gas obtained in this manner is referred to as unconventional or tight gas. 

Most unconventional natural gas deposits, however, are trapped deep underground in difficult to reach shale rock or coalbed methane. Recent technological advances continue to improve extraction techniques and help get this form of energy out of the ground. 

How Do We Get Natural Gas?  

After it is extracted, natural gas needs to be transported to where it will be consumed — and there are a lot of challenges involved with transporting gas. That is where liquefied natural gas, or LNG, comes in. If natural gas is cooled to -250ºF (-160ºC), it creates a clear liquid that is much easier to ship and store. This liquefied gas is shipped in gas pipelines to reach tanker ships and cargo trains that can carry it to end users. Countries such as Qatar, Iran, Canada, and the United States produce, export, and use natural gas in this way. 

What Types of Gas Make Up Natural Gas? 

There are several gases that make up natural gas, with the largest portion being made of methane, which can account for up to 90% of this fuel. This compound is very simple, as it is composed of one carbon atom (C) and four hydrogen atoms (H₄) to make the molecule CH₄.  

Natural gas also contains smaller amounts of other hydrocarbon gasses such as ethane, butane, and propane, as well as non-hydrocarbon gases, such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor. 

Does Natural Gas Rise Or Fall?  

Natural gas rises. Gases either rise or fall, depending on their relative weight compared to ambient air. This is based on their chemical composition, which determines other properties of each gas as well, such as their density.  

What Does It Mean for Natural Gas to Rise? 

Natural gas is lighter than air, so it will always rise if released into the atmosphere. In comparison, propane is heavier than air — it will fall if released and will settle along the lowest available level in a building or along the ground. This makes it a relatively safer gas as it will not escape into the air and can be collected in most instances.  

How Much Natural Gas Is Left in the World?  

There are an estimated 6,923 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven natural gas reserves left in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This is equivalent to 52.3 times the world’s annual consumption, meaning we have about 52 years of available natural gas left if we continue consuming it at current levels. However, this does not take into consideration unproven reserves or an undiscovered gas supply that could change the future outlook on available natural gas production capacity.  

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Is Natural Gas Considered Clean Energy? 

Natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel, but it is not considered clean in the same way that wind energy and solar energy are categorized. Burning natural gas for energy creates significantly less CO₂ emissions than burning coal or crude oil to achieve an equivalent energy output. It’s also the cleanest form of sulfide producing energy that can be a bridge between moving away from coal and adopting more renewable energy sources and moving towards greater energy efficiency in the power sector.  

The Future of Natural Gas 

As we look to address climate change while continuing to have enough energy to meet the demands of modern life, natural gas is a resource that can help in this transition to a lower-carbon economy. With regulatory measures that aim to decrease CO₂ emissions and gas prices staying competitive compared to other forms of energy, many gas companies are taking the lead in providing this form of cleaner-burning fossil fuel energy for consumers across North America and the rest of the world.