Natural Gas Case Study

From your cooking in the oven to powering your lights, natural gas is a fossil fuel energy source with many uses. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, slowly replacing coal as the most common fossil fuel worldwide. There is a lot of heated debate over what role natural gas should play in the face of climate change and the rising demand for energy. Case studies are important in geography, so why don't we learn about a natural gas case study? Today, we’ll examine natural gas in-depth, taking a dive into what it is, how it's used, some advantages and disadvantages of natural gas, and its pros and cons.

Natural Gas Case Study Natural Gas Case Study

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Table of contents

    Natural gas definition

    First off, let’s define what natural gas is. Natural gas is a mix of flammable gasses known as hydrocarbons, with the most common one being methane. It has no colour or smell, but most places add a strong scent to natural gas to help detect leaks. Natural gas is a fossil fuel and is made up of plants, animals, and microorganisms from millions of years ago that have been pressurized after years of new soil and land pressing it down underground. When spoken about in the context of energy production, natural gas is sometimes just called gas, but shouldn’t be confused with petrol.

    Natural gas is an invisible, flammable gas mostly made up of methane found buried within the earth.

    Natural gas examples

    Next, let’s talk about some natural gas examples.

    Wet natural gas

    Sometimes natural gas is mixed with other hydrocarbons that are heavier than methane, like propane, and when taken out of the ground have to be separated out to end up with just the lighter natural gas. The heavier hydrocarbons are the "wet" part making it wet natural gas. The leftover hydrocarbons can sometimes be turned into other products like petrol and liquified petroleum gas.

    Dry natural gas

    When the natural gas found in the ground is mostly methane, with little other hydrocarbons, it’s considered dry natural gas. The gas is under pressure, and long metal tubes are drilled into the ground to extract it. Because little processing is needed, dry natural gas is cheaper to extract.

    Shale natural gas

    Not all natural gas can be easily taken out of the ground. Natural gas is sometimes stuck within tight layers of rock known as shale and needs to be broken up through a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking to extract it.

    Fracking is a relatively new invention, while traditional gas wells do not require very much specialised equipment, fracking requires lots of complex machinery and chemicals to carry out.

    It’s also controversial, mostly due to the chemicals needed to be pumped into the ground to break up the shale rocks and worries of groundwater contamination. Supporters of fracking say that it’s good for the economy and helps increase energy security.

    Liquified natural gas

    Even though the name implies it's a gas, natural gas can also be cooled and compressed to take a liquid form. To stay in a liquid state, natural gas needs to be stored at very low temperatures and then ends up using much less space than when it’s stored as a gas. Because it takes less space, it’s much easier to transport efficiently, especially when taken over oceans where pipelines aren’t feasible.

    Uses of natural gas

    Natural gas has several primary uses, let’s talk about them below.

    Electricity generation

    As mentioned earlier, natural gas is highly flammable and is used to move a machine called a turbine, which generates electricity. As coal plants close down in developed countries, they are often being replaced by natural gas plants and renewable energy sources. Worldwide, about one-quarter of all electricity generated is from natural gas.

    Heating

    The heat from burning natural gas can also heat homes and buildings during cold weather. Natural gas heating is critical in Europe to heat places during the wintertime. Electricity is also used to heat buildings sometimes but generally is more expensive than gas in most places, including the UK.

    Cooking

    Natural gas also powers stove tops and ovens, providing heat for all manners of cooking. Due to the emissions they produce, gas stoves are sometimes coupled with ventilation systems that remove harmful gasses from the kitchen.

    Natural gas case study natural gas burner StudySmarterFig. 2 - A burner is the most recognizable use of natural gas in everyday life

    Transportation

    While not very common, some vehicles are also powered using natural gas. Natural gas is usually cheaper than petrol, but these vehicles need more specialised equipment and space to store natural gas. Major investments in filling stations for natural gas are needed to make it a viable option in places where only petrol stations are found.

    Advantages of natural gas

    The main advantages of natural gas are that it is in abundant supply, can be used at will, and burns cleaner compared to other fossil fuels. Read on to learn more about each advantage in depth.

    Abundant

    Compared to other fossil fuels like oil, natural gas is more abundant, partly because it has not been exploited for as many years and also for geological reasons. Some countries are finding coal mining more and more expensive and are turning to their natural gas resources instead. While natural gas is a non-renewable resource, there are still significant quantities of it to meet power needs for the next several decades.

    On-demand use

    Like most non-renewable energy sources, natural gas can be stored and used as needed to generate electricity and heat homes. The advantage of this is that power generation and natural gas supplied for heating can be increased to exactly meet the needs of the people, and also decreased to save money and (potentially) reduce pollution.

    Compared to renewable energy sources like wind and solar which rely on weather conditions like cloud clover and breezes, natural gas is only impacted by how much power a plant can produce and supply available. In effect, this makes natural gas a more reliable energy source, at least until more significant investments in renewable energy projects are made.

    Burns cleaner

    While the emissions from burning natural gas are by no means harmless, it does not contain the same amount of harmful pollutants that coal and oil products like petrol do when burned. Carbon monoxide is very harmful to human health, and there is next to none emitted when natural gas is burned compared to petrol. For coal power plants to achieve the same low level of pollutants as natural gas, expensive modern equipment is needed, sometimes making it so expensive that an older plant is closed in favour of natural gas to meet government regulations.

    Disadvantages of natural gas

    Now that we’ve gone over some advantages of natural gas, let’s look at the disadvantages of natural gas.

    Greenhouse gas emissions

    Natural gas is a fossil fuel that creates carbon dioxide emissions when burned, the primary driver of climate change. Additionally, natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a strong greenhouse gas, over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If natural gas is not stored properly, it can leak into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

    Natural gas Case Study Helsinki natural gas plant StudySmarterFig. 3 - Natural gas power plants like this one in Helsinki are leading contributors to climate change

    Non-renewable

    While we previously discussed that natural gas is plentiful, it’s still a non-renewable resource and is going to run out. Natural gas is not a permanent solution to our energy needs and will keep running out as the earth’s population increases and developing countries become richer. A switch to renewable energy is absolutely necessary for humanity to thrive into the future.

    Pros and cons of natural gas

    In short, the main benefit of natural gas is its ability to be used when needed for electricity and heating, and its main disadvantage is that it contributes to climate change and will eventually run out. The table below summarizes the pros and cons of natural gas.

    ProsCons
    Abundant supply worldwide, not poised to run out soonNon-renewable; every time it is used the supply dwindles
    Can be used on-demand to generate electricity or provide heatProduces greenhouse gas emissions, worsening climate change
    Much less pollution and particulates than coal or petrol burningStill has more pollution compared to renewable sources

    Table 1

    Natural Gas Case Study - Key takeaways

    • Natural gas is a flammable fossil fuel gas primarily used to generate electricity and heat buildings.

    • Compared to other fossil fuels, it produces less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

    • Natural gas is a non-renewable energy source and contributes to worsening climate change.


    References

    1. Fig. 2: Natural Gas burner (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gas-natural.jpg) by CARLOS534 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:CARLOS534) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Natural Gas Case Study

    What are the four types of natural gas?

    • Wet natural gas

    • Dry natural gas

    • Shale gas

    • Liquified natural gas

    What is the difference between gas and natural gas?

    Gas is a nickname Americans use for petrol, a liquid made from oil that is mostly used to power cars. Gas is also a state of matter. Natural gas is an invisible gas, like air, that is very flammable and used for generating electricity and heating homes. The terms can be somewhat confusing, but try to think about the context to determine what an article or someone is talking about when they say gas.

    Is natural gas renewable?

    No, natural gas is not a renewable energy source. The supply of natural gas is limited, and every time it is used it’s not replaced. This contrasts with renewable energy sources like solar, where the supply of sunlight is constant and does not go down as solar panels turn it into electricity.

    Is natural gas good for the environment?

    Natural gas is generally less harmful for the environment than coal or oil, but is not good for the environment overall. Natural gas burning and leaks release greenhouse gasses which accelerate climate change, a devastating consequence for the environment. The mining and extraction of natural gas also harms ecosystems and can contaminate water supplies.

    What are examples of natural gas?

    Some examples of natural gas include methane, which is the primary natural gas, and other hydrocarbons like propane and butane.

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