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Natural gas facts for kids

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Darvasa gas crater panorama
The Door to Hell, a natural gas field in Turkmenistan. It has been burning continuously since 1971, fed by the rich natural gas deposits in the area.

Natural gas is a mixture. It consists mainly of hydrocarbons. The main component is methane. Natural gas is often found in the ground, either alone or together with petroleum. Landfills and natural processes produce a little methane. Usually it is transported to users in a pipeline.

Most natural gas is burnt as a fuel to produce energy. It burns with a clean blue flame, causing little pollution.

Natural gas is burned to produce electricity, to cook and to heat buildings. It is also used as fuel for natural gas vehicles for transport. When natural gas is burned in a power station it boils water into steam that spins a steam turbine that turns a generator to make electricity. Some power stations use natural gas in a gas turbine.

Natural gas is also converted into many different industrial chemicals. It is the most common feedstock for making pure hydrogen. Hydrogen is used as fuel in fuel cells, and to make ammonia. Ammonia is used as a fuel, as a fertilizer for crops, and for making many other things. Natural gas is also converted into monomers to make many plastic products.


Burning of natural gas coming out of the ground in Taiwan

Natural gas was discovered accidentally in ancient China, as it resulted from the drilling for brines. Natural gas was first used by the Chinese in about 500 BC (possibly even 1000 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 discovery and identification of natural gas in the Americas happened in 1626. In 1821, William Hart successfully dug the first natural gas well at Fredonia, New York, United States, which led to the formation of the Fredonia Gas Light Company.

The city of Philadelphia created the first municipally owned natural gas distribution venture in 1836. By 2009, 66 000 km³ (or 8%) had been used out of the total 850 000 km³ of estimated remaining recoverable reserves of natural gas. Based on an estimated 2015 world consumption rate of about 3400 km³ 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.


Natural gas

Natural gas drilling rig in Texas, USA

In the 19th century, natural gas was primarily obtained as a by-product of producing oil. The gas was often viewed as a by-product, a hazard, and a disposal problem in active oil fields. The large volumes produced could not be utilized until relatively expensive pipeline and storage facilities were constructed to deliver the gas to consumer markets.

Until the early part of the 20th century, most natural gas associated with oil was either simply released or burned off at oil fields. 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.

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).

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 51,000 cubic kilometers (12,000 cu mi) of natural gas and 50 billion barrels (7.9 billion cubic meters) of natural gas condensates.

Shale gas

The location of shale gas compared to other types of gas deposits

Shale gas is natural gas produced from shale. Since 2000, shale gas has become a major source of natural gas in the United States and Canada. Because of increased shale gas production the United States was in 2014 the number one natural gas producer in the world.

Following the increased production in the United States, shale gas exploration is beginning in countries such as Poland, China, and South Africa.

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.

Most town "gashouses" located in the eastern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were simple by-product coke ovens which heated bituminous coal in air-tight chambers. The gas driven off from the coal was collected and distributed through town-wide networks of pipes to residences and other buildings where it was used for cooking and lighting purposes. (Gas heating did not come into widespread use until the last half of the twentieth century.) The coal tar that collected in the bottoms of the gashouse ovens was often used for roofing and other water-proofing purposes, and also, when mixed with sand and gravel, was used for creating Bitumen for the surfacing of local streets.


When methane-rich gases are produced by the anaerobic decay of non-fossil organic 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 sewage sludge and manure by way of anaerobic digesters, in addition to enteric fermentation particularly in cattle.

U.S. Natural Gas Production 1900-2005
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.

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.

Biogas is usually produced using agricultural waste materials, such as otherwise unusable parts of plants and manure.

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.


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). However, as of 2009 no technology has been developed to produce natural gas economically from hydrates.


Power generation

Natural gas is a major source of electricity generation through the use of gas turbines and steam turbines. 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 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. 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.

Domestic use

Natural gas is supplied to homes where it is used for such purposes as cooking in natural gas-powered ranges and 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. Natural gas is also supplied by independent natural gas suppliers through Natural Gas Choice programs throughout the United States. However, due to CNG being less economical than LPG, LPG (propane) is the dominant source of rural gas.

WMATA 3006
A Washington, D.C. Metrobus, which runs on natural gas.


See also: Electric vehicle

Compressed natural gas (methane) is an alternative to other automobile fossil fuels such as gasoline (petrol) and diesel. As of 2008 there were 9.6 million natural gas vehicles worldwide, led by Pakistan (2.0 million), Argentina (1.7 million), Brazil (1.6 million), Iran (1.0 million), and India (650,000). 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.


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. The advantages of liquid methane as a jet engine fuel are that it has more specific energy than the standard kerosene mixes do and that its low temperature can help cool the air which the engine compresses for greater volumetric efficiency, in effect replacing an intercooler. Alternatively, it can be used to lower the temperature of the exhaust.


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

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