Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, with other hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide. Natural gas is widely used as an important energy source in many applications including heating buildings, generating electricity, providing heat and power to industry, as fuel for vehicles and as a chemical feedstock in the manufacture of products such as plastics and other commercially important organic chemicals.
Natural gas is found in deep underground natural rock formations or associated with other hydrocarbon reservoirs, in coal beds, and as methane clathrates. Petroleum is also another resource found near 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 undergo processing to clean the gas and remove impurities including water in order to meet the specifications of marketable natural gas. The by-products of processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulphide (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. In the 19th century, natural gas was usually obtained as a byproduct 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 bottle of soda 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 in the 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 economically feasible to move the gas from the wellsite to the end consumer.
Another possibility is to export the natural gas as a liquid. Gas-to-liquids (GTL) is a developing technology that converts stranded natural gas into synthetic gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process developed during World War II by Germany. Such fuel can be transported to users through conventional pipelines and tankers. Proponents claim GTL burns cleaner than comparable petroleum fuels. Most major international oil companies are in an advanced stage of GTL production. A world-scale (140,000 barrels (22,000 m3) a day) GTL plant in Qatar went into production in 2011.
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 significant amounts 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), and hydrogen sulfide must also be removed before the natural gas can be transported.
Natural gas is commercially extracted from oil fields and natural gas fields. Gas extracted from oil wells is called casinghead gas or associated gas. The natural gas industry is extracting gas from increasingly more challenging resource types: sour gas, tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane.
The world's largest proven gas reserves are located in Russia, with 4.757×1013 m³ (1.68×1015 cubic feet). With the Gazprom company, Russia is frequently the world's largest natural gas extractor. Major proven resources (in billion cubic meters) are world 175,400 (2006), Russia 47,570 (2006), Iran 26,370 (2006), Qatar 25,790 (2007), Saudi Arabia 6,568 (2006) and United Arab Emirates 5,823 (2006).
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 & Veatch and the DOE -- see natural gas -- will account for a larger portion of electricity generation and heat in the future.
The world's largest gas field is Qatar's offshore North Field, estimated to have 25 trillion cubic meters (9.0×1014cubic feet) of gas in place—enough to last more than 420 years at optimum extraction levels. The second largest natural gas field is the South Pars Gas Field in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Located next to Qatar's North Field, it has an estimated reserve of 8 to 14 trillion cubic meters (2.8×1014 to 5.0×1014 cubic feet) of gas.
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 deposited. 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.
Town gas, a synthetically produced mixture of methane and other gases, mainly the highly toxic carbon monoxide, is used in a similar way to natural gas and can be produced by treating coal chemically. 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 which 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 water-proofing purposes, and when mixed with sand and gravel was used for paving 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.
Methanogenic archaea (bacteria) are responsible for all biological sources of methane, some in symbiotic relationships with other life forms, including termites, ruminants, and cultivated crops. Methane released directly into the atmosphere would be considered a pollutant. However, methane in the atmosphere is oxidized, producing carbon dioxide and water. Methane in the atmosphere has a half life of seven years, meaning that if a tonne of methane were emitted today, 500 kilograms would have broken down to carbon dioxide and water after seven years.
Other sources of methane, the principal component of natural gas, include landfill gas, biogas, and methane hydrate. Biogas, and especially landfill gas, are already used in some areas, but their use could be greatly expanded. Landfill gas is a type of biogas, but biogas usually refers to gas produced from organic material that has not been mixed with other waste.
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. The gas can be vented to the atmosphere, flared or burned to produce electricity or heat. Experimental systems were being proposed for use in parts of Hertfordshire, UK, and Lyon in France.
Once water vapor is removed, about half of landfill gas is methane. Almost all of the rest is carbon dioxide, but there are also small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. There are usually trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and siloxanes, but their concentration varies widely. 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.
It is usually more economical to combust 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 combusted 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 in order 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.
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.
Biogas is usually produced using agricultural waste materials, such as otherwise unusable parts of plants and manure. 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. 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.
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.
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. However, as of 2010[update] no technology has been developed yet to extract natural gas economically from hydrates.
In 2010, using current technology, the cost of extracting natural gas from crystallized natural gas is estimated to 100–200 per cent the cost of extracting natural gas from conventional sources, and even higher from offshore deposits.
Natural gas is a major source of electricity generation through the use of gas turbines and steam turbines. Natural gas is also perfectly suitedfor 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 an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30 per cent less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45 per cent less than burning coal. Combined cycle power generation using natural gas is thus the cleanest source of power available using hydrocarbon 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.
Storage and transport
Because of its low density, it is not easy to store natural gas or transport by vehicle. Natural gas pipelines are impractical across oceans. Many existing pipelines in America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians representing northern states to speak of potential shortages. In Europe, the gas pipeline network is already dense in the West. New pipelines are planned or under construction in Eastern Europe and between gas fields in Russia, Near East and Northern Africa and Western Europe. See also List of natural gas pipelines.
LNG carriers transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) across oceans, while tank trucks can carry liquefied or compressed natural gas (CNG) over shorter distances. Sea transport using CNG carrier ships that are now under development may be competitive with LNG transport in specific conditions.
Gas is turned into liquid at a liquefaction plant, and is returned to gas form at regasification plant at the terminal. Shipborne regasification equipment is also used. LNG is the preferred form for long distance, high volume transportation of natural gas, whereas pipeline is preferred for transport for distances up to 4,000 km over land and approximately half that distance offshore.
CNG is transported at high pressure, typically above 200 bars. Compressors and decompression equipment are less capital intensive and may be economical in smaller unit sizes than liquefaction/regasification plants. Natural gas trucks and carriers may transport natural gas directly to end-users, or to distribution points such as pipelines.
In the past, the natural gas which was recovered in the course of recovering petroleum could not be profitably sold, and was simply burned at the oil field in a process known as flaring. Flaring is now illegal in many countries. Additionally, companies now recognize that gas may be sold to consumers in the form of LNG or CNG, or through other transportation methods. The gas is now re-injected into the formation for later recovery. The re-injection also assists oil pumping by keeping underground pressures higher.
A "master gas system" was invented in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s, ending any necessity for flaring. Satellite observation, however, shows that flaring and venting are still practiced in some gas-extracting countries.
Natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat for desalination. Similarly, some landfills that also discharge methane gases have been set up to capture the methane and generate electricity.
Natural gas is often stored underground inside depleted gas reservoirs from previous gas wells, salt domes, or in tanks as liquefied natural gas. The gas is injected in a time of low demand and extracted when demand picks up. Storage nearby end users helps to meet volatile demands, but such storage may not always be practicable.
With 15 countries accounting for 84 per cent of the worldwide extraction, access to natural gas has become an important issue in international politics, and countries vie for control of pipelines. In the first decade of the 21st century, Gazprom, the state-owned energy company in Russia, engaged in disputes with Ukraine and Belarus over the price of natural gas, which have created concerns that gas deliveries to parts of Europe could be cut off for political reasons.
Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) is an innovative technology designed to enable the development of offshore gas resources that would otherwise remain untapped because due to environmental or economic factors it is nonviable to develop them via a land-based LNG operation. FLNG technology also provides a number of environmental and economic advantages:
- Environmental – Because all processing is done at the gas field, there is no requirement for long pipelines to shore, compression units to pump the gas to shore, dredging and jetty construction, and onshore construction of an LNG processing plant, which significantly reduces the environmental footprint. Avoiding construction also helps preserve marine and coastal environments. In addition, environmental disturbance will be minimised during decommissioning because the facility can easily be disconnected and removed before being refurbished and re-deployed elsewhere.
- Economic – Where pumping gas to shore can be prohibitively expensive, FLNG makes development economically viable. As a result, it will open up new business opportunities for countries to develop offshore gas fields that would otherwise remain stranded, such as those offshore East Africa.
Many gas and oil companies are considering the economic and environmental benefits of Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG). However, for the time being, the only FLNG facility now in development is being built by Shell, due for completion around 2017.
The practice of hydraulic fracturing, the process of using a combination of chemicals ranging from harmless to toxic to force natural gas to the surface from reservoirs with low permeability, has come under scrutiny internationally due to concerns about environmental and health safety, and has been suspended or banned in some countries.
Some gas fields yield sour gas containing hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This untreated gas is toxic. Amine gas treating, an industrial scale process which removes acidic gaseous components, is often used to remove hydrogen sulfide from natural gas.
Extraction of natural gas (or oil) leads to decrease in pressure in the reservoir. Such decrease in pressure in turn may result in subsidence, sinking of the ground above. Subsidence may affect ecosystems, waterways, sewer and water supply systems, foundations, and so on.
Another ecosystem effect results from the noise of the process. This can change the composition of animal life in the area, and have consequences for plants as well in that animals disperse seeds and pollen.
Releasing the gas from low-permeability reservoirs is accomplished by a process called hydraulic fracturing or "hydrofracking". To allow the natural gas to flow out of the shale, oil operators force 1 to 9 million US gallons (34,000 m3) of water mixed with a variety of chemicals through the wellbore casing into the shale. The high pressure water breaks up or "fracks" the shale, which releases the trapped gas. Sand is added to the water as a proppant to keep the fractures in the shale open, thus enabling the gas to flow into the casing and then to the surface. The chemicals are added to the frack fluid to reduce friction and combat corrosion. During the extracting life of a gas well, other low concentrations of other chemical substances may be used, such as biocides to eliminate fouling, scale and corrosion inhibitors, oxygen scavengers to remove a source of corrosion, and acids to clean the perforations in the pipe.
Dealing with fracking fluid can be a challenge. Along with the gas, 30 per cent to 70 per cent of the chemically laced frack fluid, or flow back, returns to the surface. Additionally, a significant amount of salt and other minerals, once a part of the rock layers that were under prehistoric seas, may be incorporated in the flow back as they dissolve in the frack fluid.