Natural gas is easy to transport and use, and is cheap and clean. Even though it is more attractive than using coal and oil, it is not the perfect answer to a long term energy solution.
Like oil, natural gas is a product of decomposed organic material. It is a byproduct of plants and animals that decomposed without the presence of oxygen. As they were covered with sediment they became trapped. That is why natural gas is called a fossil fuel.
Natural gas is similar to oil, in many ways. The gas is often found mixed with oil or floating on top of underground pools of oil. The gas and oil are both extracted by drilling.
Natural gas didn’t used to be regarded as a useful resource and was burned off as it was extracted from the ground. Imagine that? It wasn’t until it was regarded as a useful fuel source that pipelines were developed for its transport.
It’s not entirely clear how much natural gas remains in the ground. As far as experts can tell, there should be a supply of at least 60 years from now. It is estimated that Russia has vast supplies along with many more undiscovered sources in the world. This prediction puts the supply out to a couple human lifetimes from now. Who knows what the world will be like, that far into the future.
Natural gas was first used to provide light for houses and buildings, but it was manufactured from coal and oil. So the construction of pipelines began in the 50s and covered most of the nation by the 80s. Pipelines are still being added to this day.
Nearly 70% of US homes are heated with natural gas. The best home furnaces are over 90 percent efficient at utilizing the heat from the gas.
Even though natural gas is a fossil fuel and is made mostly of carbon, byproducts from gas are much less than coal or oil. Compared to coal, natural gas produces 43% less carbon byproducts for each unit of energy produced and 30% less than oil. A coal plant produces large amounts of ash where natural gas does not. However, burning gas still produces nitrogen oxides byproducts, contributing to smog and acid rain.
The natural gas market continues to grow at a rapid pace. Gas turbines have added to this. The turbines are less expensive than adding coal plants, for the production of electricity.
A fuel cell is a different approach to turn gas into electricity. Fuel cells convert natural gas directly into power without combustion. A molecule of gas is made up of carbon and hydrogen. When the hydrogen is separated from the carbon and fed into a fuel cell, it combines with oxygen to produce water, electricity and heat. The carbon is released as carbon dioxide, although in much smaller quantities than from gas turbines.
Fuel cells are highly efficient, converting about 60 percent of the gas energy into electricity. They are totally silent and can be made in different sizes. They can be made small enough to power a car or large enough to provide electricity, heat and hot water to apartment buildings or factories.
Natural gas in the future may be produced from biomass. Biomass can be animal waste, sewage or trash. When these items decay, methane is given off. The methane can be captured and burned for heat or power.