Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed when layers of buried plants, gases, and animals are exposed to intense heat and pressure over thousands of years. The energy that the plants originally obtained from the sun is stored in the form of chemical bonds in natural gas. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource because it cannot be replenished on a human time frame. Natural gas is a hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, but commonly includes varying amounts of other higher alkanes and sometimes a usually lesser percentage of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and/or hydrogen sulfide. Natural gas is an energy source often used for heating, cooking, and electricity generation. It is also used as fuel for vehicles and as a chemical feedstock in the manufacture of plastics and other commercially important organic chemicals.
Natural gas is found in deep underground rock formations or associated with other hydrocarbon reservoirs in coal beds and as methane clathrates. Petroleum is another resource and fossil fuel found in close proximity to, and with natural gas. Most natural gas was created over time by two mechanisms: biogenic and thermogenic. Biogenic gas is created by methanogenic organisms in marshes, bogs, landfills, and shallow sediments. Deeper in the earth, at greater temperature and pressure, thermogenic gas is created from buried organic material.
Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must be processed to remove impurities, including water, to meet the specifications of marketable natural gas. The by-products of this processing include: ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide (which may be converted into pure sulfur), carbon dioxide, water vapor, and sometimes helium and nitrogen.
Natural gas is often informally referred to simply as “gas,” especially when compared to other energy sources such as oil or coal. However, it is not to be confused with gasoline, especially in North America, where the term gasoline is often shortened in colloquial usage to gas.
Natural gas was used by the Chinese in about 500 BC. They discovered a way to transport gas seeping from the ground in crude pipelines of bamboo to where it was used to boil salt water to extract the salt, in the Ziliujing District of Sichuan. The world’s first industrial extraction of natural gas started at Fredonia, New York, USA in 1825. By 2009, 66 trillion cubic meters (or 8%) had been used out of the total 850 trillion cubic meters of estimated remaining recoverable reserves of natural gas. Based on an estimated 2015 world consumption rate of about 3.4 trillion cubic meters of gas per year, the total estimated remaining economically recoverable reserves of natural gas would last 250 years at current consumption rates. An annual increase in usage of 2–3% could result in currently recoverable reserves lasting significantly less, perhaps as few as 80 to 100 years.
In the 19th century, natural gas was usually obtained as a by-product of producing oil, since the small, light gas carbon chains came out of solution as the extracted fluids underwent pressure reduction from the reservoir to the surface, similar to uncapping a soft drink bottle where the carbon dioxide effervesces. Unwanted natural gas was a disposal problem in the active oil fields. If there was not a market for natural gas near the wellhead it was virtually valueless since it had to be piped to the end user.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, such unwanted gas was usually burned off at oil fields. Today, unwanted gas (or stranded gas without a market) associated with oil extraction often is returned to the reservoir with ‘injection’ wells while awaiting a possible future market or to repressurize the formation, which can enhance extraction rates from other wells. In regions with a high natural gas demand (such as the US), pipelines are constructed when it is economically feasible to transport gas from a wellsite to an end consumer.
In addition to transporting gas via pipelines for use in power generation, other end uses for natural gas include export as liquefied natural gas (LNG) or conversion of natural gas into other liquid products via gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies. GTL technologies can convert natural gas into liquids products such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. A variety of GTL technologies have been developed, including Fischer–Tropsch (F–T), methanol to gasoline (MTG) and STG+. F–T produces a synthetic crude that can be further refined into finished products, while MTG can produce synthetic gasoline from natural gas. STG+ can produce drop-in gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and aromatic chemicals directly from natural gas via a single-loop process. In 2011, Royal Dutch Shell’s 140,000 barrel per day F–T plant went into operation in Qatar.
Natural gas can be “associated” (found in oil fields), or “non-associated” (isolated in natural gas fields), and is also found in coal beds (as coalbed methane). It sometimes contains a significant amount of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed for commercial use prior to the methane being sold as a consumer fuel or chemical plant feedstock. Non-hydrocarbons such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium (rarely), andhydrogen sulfide must also be removed before the natural gas can be transported.
Natural gas extracted from oil wells is called casinghead gas (whether or not truly produced up the annulus and through a casinghead outlet) or associated gas. The natural gas industry is extracting an increasing quantity of gas from challenging resource types: sour gas, tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane.
There is some disagreement on which country has the largest proven gas reserves. Sources that consider that Russia has by far the largest proven reserves include the US CIA (47.6 trillion cubic meters), the US Energy Information Administration (47.8 tcm), and OPEC (48.7 tcm). However, BP credits Russia with only 32.9 tcm, which would place it in second place, slightly behind Iran (33.1 to 33.8 tcm, depending on the source). With Gazprom, Russia is frequently the world’s largest natural gas extractor. Major proven resources (in billion cubic meters) are world 187,300 (2013), Iran 33,600 (2013), Russia 32,900 (2013), Qatar 25,100 (2013), Turkmenistan 17,500 (2013) and the United States 8,500 (2013).
It is estimated that there are about 900 trillion cubic meters of “unconventional” gas such as shale gas, of which 180 trillion may be recoverable. In turn, many studies from MIT, Black & Veatchand the DOE predict that natural gas will account for a larger portion of electricity generation and heat in the future.
The world’s largest gas field is the offshore South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field, shared between Iran and Qatar. It is estimated to have 51 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates.
Because natural gas is not a pure product, as the reservoir pressure drops when non-associated gas is extracted from a field under supercritical (pressure/temperature) conditions, the higher molecular weight components may partially condense upon isothermic depressurizing—an effect called retrograde condensation. The liquid thus formed may get trapped as the pores of the gas reservoir get depleted. One method to deal with this problem is to re-inject dried gas free of condensate to maintain the underground pressure and to allow re-evaporation and extraction of condensates. More frequently, the liquid condenses at the surface, and one of the tasks of the gas plant is to collect this condensate. The resulting liquid is called natural gas liquid (NGL) and has commercial value.
Shale gas is natural gas produced from shale. Because shale has matrix permeability too low to allow gas to flow in economical quantities, shale gas wells depend on fractures to allow the gas to flow. Early shale gas wells depended on natural fractures through which gas flowed; almost all shale gas wells today require fractures artificially created by hydraulic fracturing. Since 2000, shale gas has become a major source of natural gas in the United States and Canada. Following the success in the United States, shale gas exploration is beginning in countries such as Poland, China, and South Africa. With the increase of shale production it has caused the United States to become the number one natural gas producer in the world.
Town gas is a flammable gaseous fuel made by the destructive distillation of coal and contains a variety of calorific gases including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, and other volatile hydrocarbons, together with small quantities of non-calorific gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and is used in a similar way to natural gas. This is a historical technology, not usually economically competitive with other sources of fuel gas today. But there are still some specific cases where it is the best option and it may be so into the future.
Most town “gashouses” located in the eastern US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were simple by-product coke ovens that heated bituminous coal in air-tight chambers. The gas driven off from the coal was collected and distributed through networks of pipes to residences and other buildings where it was used for cooking and lighting. (Gas heating did not come into widespread use until the last half of the 20th century.) The coal tar (or asphalt) that collected in the bottoms of the gashouse ovens was often used for roofing and other waterproofing purposes, and when mixed with sand and gravel was used for paving streets.
Methanogenic archaea are responsible for all biological sources of methane. Some live in symbiotic relationships with other life forms, including termites, ruminants, and cultivated crops. Other sources of methane, the principal component of natural gas, include landfill gas, biogas, and methane hydrate. When methane-rich gases are produced by the anaerobic decay of non-fossilorganic matter (biomass), these are referred to as biogas (or natural biogas). Sources of biogas include swamps, marshes, and landfills (see landfill gas), as well as agricultural waste materials such as sewage sludge and manure by way of anaerobic digesters, in addition to enteric fermentation, particularly in cattle. Landfill gas is created by decomposition of waste in landfill sites. Excluding water vapor, about half of landfill gas is methane and most of the rest is carbon dioxide, with small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, and variable trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and siloxanes. 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. Biogas can also be produced by separating organic materials from waste that otherwise goes to landfills. This method is more efficient than just capturing the landfill gas it produces. 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.
Landfill gas cannot be distributed through utility natural gas pipelines unless it is cleaned up to less than 3 per cent CO2, and a few parts per million H2S, because CO2 and H2S corrode the pipelines. The presence of CO2 will lower the energy level of the gas below requirements for the pipeline. Siloxanes in the gas will form deposits in gas burners and need to be removed prior to entry into any gas distribution or transmission system. Consequently it may be more economical to burn the gas on site or within a short distance of the landfill using a dedicated pipeline. Water vapor is often removed, even if the gas is burned on site. If low temperatures condense water out of the gas, siloxanes can be lowered as well because they tend to condense out with the water vapor. Other non-methane components may also be removed 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, and especially landfill gas, are already used in some areas, but their use could be greatly expanded. Experimental systems were being proposed for use in parts of Hertfordshire, UK, and Lyon in France. 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. Gas generated in sewage treatment plants is commonly used to generate electricity. For example, the Hyperion sewage plant in Los Angeles burns 8 million cubic feet (230,000 m3) of gas per day to generate power New York City utilizes gas to run equipment in the sewage plants, to generate electricity, and in boilers. Using sewage gas to make electricity is not limited to large cities. The city of Bakersfield, California, uses cogeneration at its sewer plants. California has 242 sewage wastewater treatment plants, 74 of which have installed anaerobic digesters. The total biopower generation from the 74 plants is about 66 MW.
Crystallized Natural Gas—Hydrates
Huge quantities of natural gas (primarily methane) exist in the form of hydrates under sediment on offshore continental shelves and on land in arctic regions that experience permafrost, such as those in Siberia. Hydrates require a combination of high pressure and low temperature to form.
In 2010, the cost of extracting natural gas from crystallized natural gas was estimated to 100–200 per cent the cost of extracting natural gas from conventional sources, and even higher from offshore deposits.
In 2013, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) announced that they had recovered commercially relevant quantities of natural gas from methane hydrate.
Natural gas production in the U.S. reached a peak in 1973, and went over a second lower peak in 2001, but recently has peaked again and is continuing to rise.
Mid-Stream Natural Gas
Natural gas flowing in the distribution lines and at the natural gas well head are often used to power natural gas powered engines. These engines rotate compressors to facilitate the natural gas transmission. These compressors are required in the mid-stream line to pressurize and to re-pressurize the natural gas in the transmission line as the gas travels. The natural gas transmission lines extend to the natural gas processing plant or unit which removes the higher molecular weighted natural gas hydrocarbons to produce a British thermal unit (BTU) value between 950 and 1050 BTUs. The processed natural gas may then be used for residential, commercial and industrial uses.
Often mid-stream and well head gases require removal of many of the various hydrocarbon species contained within the natural gas. Some of these gases include heptane, pentane, propane and other hydrocarbons with molecular weights above Methane (CH4) to produce a natural gas fuel which is used to operate the natural gas engines for further pressurized transmission. Typically, natural gas compressors require 950 to 1050 BTU per cubic foot to operate at the natural gas engines rotational name plate specifications.
Several methods are used to remove these higher molecular weighted gases for use at the natural gas engine. A few technologies are as follows:
- Joule–Thomson skid
- Cryogenic or chiller system
- Chemical enzymology system
Natural gas is a major source of electricity generation through the use of cogeneration, gas turbines and steam turbines. Natural gas is also well suited for a combined use in association with renewable energy sources such as wind or solar and for alimenting peak-load power stations functioning in tandem with hydroelectric plants. Most grid peaking power plants and some off-grid engine-generators use natural gas. Particularly high efficiencies can be achieved through combining gas turbines with a steam turbine in combined cycle mode. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other hydrocarbon fuels, such as oil and coal, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy released. For transportation, burning natural gas produces about 30 per cent less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 45 per cent less than burning coal for power. The US Energy Information Administration reports the following emissions in million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the world for 2012:
- Natural gas: 6,799
- Petroleum: 11,695
- Coal: 13,787
Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt hour generated, which is almost double the carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt hour generated. Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the fuel mix in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have unexpectedly fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992.
Combined cycle power generation using natural gas is currently the cleanest available source of power using hydrocarbon fuels, and this technology is widely and increasingly used as natural gas can be obtained at increasingly reasonable costs. Fuel cell technology may eventually provide cleaner options for converting natural gas into electricity, but as yet it is not price-competitive. Locally produced electricity and heat using natural gas powered Combined Heat and Power plant (CHP or Cogeneration plant) is considered energy efficient and a rapid way to cut carbon emissions. Natural gas power plants are increasing in popularity and generate 22% of the worlds total electricity. Approximately half as much as generated with coal.
Natural gas dispensed from a simple stovetop can generate temperatures in excess of 1100 °C (2000 °F) making it a powerful domestic cooking and heating fuel. In much of the developed world it is supplied through pipes to homes, where it is used for many purposes including ranges and ovens, gas-heated clothes dryers, heating/cooling, and central heating. Heaters in homes and other buildings may include boilers, furnaces, and water heaters.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) is used in rural homes without connections to piped-in public utility services, or with portable grills. Natural gas is also supplied by independent natural gas suppliers through Natural Gas Choice programs throughout the United States. However, as CNG costs more than LPG, LPG (propane) is the dominant source of rural gas.
CNG is a cleaner and also cheaper alternative to other automobile fuels such as gasoline (petrol) and diesel. By the end of 2012 there were 17.25 millionnatural gas vehicles worldwide, led by Iran (3.3 million), Pakistan (3.1 million), Argentina (2.18 million), Brazil (1.73 million), India (1.5 million), and China(1.5 million). The energy efficiency is generally equal to that of gasoline engines, but lower compared with modern diesel engines. Gasoline/petrol vehicles converted to run on natural gas suffer because of the low compression ratio of their engines, resulting in a cropping of delivered power while running on natural gas (10%–15%). CNG-specific engines, however, use a higher compression ratio due to this fuel’s higher octane number of 120–130.