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Natural Gas

How Was Natural Gas Formed?

It is generally believed, that over time the remains of plants and animals decayed and built up in thick layers.  This decayed matter from plants and animals is called organic material — it was once alive.  Over time, the mud and soil changed to rock, covered the organic material and trapped it beneath the rock.  Pressure and heat changed some of this organic material into coal, some into oil (petroleum), and some into natural gas — tiny bubbles of odorless gas.  The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a gas (or compound) composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.

In some places, gas escapes from small gaps in the rocks into the air; then, if there is enough activation energy from lightning or a fire, it burns.  When people first saw the flames, they experimented with them and learned they could use them for heat and light.

How Do We Get Natural Gas?

The search for natural gas begins with geologists. They locate the types of rock that are known to contain gas and oil deposits.

Today their tools include seismic surveys that are used to find the right places to drill wells.  Seismic surveys use echoes from a vibration source at the earth’s surface (usually a vibrating pad under a truck built for this purpose) to collect information about the rocks beneath.  Sometimes it is necessary to use small amounts of dynamite to provide the vibration that is needed.

Scientists and engineers explore a chosen area by studying rock samples from the earth and taking measurements.  If the site seems promising, drilling begins.  Some of these areas are on land but many are offshore, deep in the ocean.  Once the gas is found, it flows up through the well to the surface of the ground and into large pipelines.  Some of the gases that are produced along with methane, such as butane and propane (also known as ‘by-products’), are separated and cleaned at a gas processing plant.  The by-products, once removed, are used in a number of ways.  For example, propane can be used for cooking on gas grills.

Because natural gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless, mercaptan (a chemical that has a sulfur like odor) is added before distribution, to give it a distinct unpleasant odor (smells like rotten eggs).  This serves as a safety device by allowing it to be detected in the atmosphere, in cases where leaks occur.

Most of the natural gas consumed in the United States is produced in the United States. Some is imported from Canada and shipped to the United States in pipelines. Increasingly natural gas is also being shipped to the United States as liquefied natural gas(LNG).

We can also use machines called “digesters” that turn today’s organic material (plants, animal wastes, etc.) into natural gas.  This replaces waiting for thousands of years for the gas to form naturally.

Next > Natural Gas Storage and Delivery, Effect on the Environment