Natural gas is a critical energy resource today, used in a wide range of applications around the world.
Sourced from underground deposits, this fossil fuel has been an essential source of energy for more than a century, but its use poses environmental and economic challenges that require careful consideration.
In this article, we will explain what natural gas is, where it comes from and its uses in today's society.
What Is the Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a mixture of gaseous hydrocarbons composed mainly of methane (CH 4 ), although it may contain traces of other compounds. It is a fossil resource, meaning it originates from the decomposition of organic matter over millions of years.
It is usually found trapped in underground formations of porous rock, sand, and sediment.
Its chemical composition and the way it is extracted make it highly efficient as an energy source.
Origin and Extraction of Gas
Natural gas is formed from the decomposition of organic matter, such as plant and animal remains, under conditions of heat and pressure in the subsurface.
During this geological process, gaseous hydrocarbons are released and accumulate in underground cavities, typically in sedimentary rocks. Natural gas extraction involves drilling wells into these formations and releasing the trapped gas.
Once extracted, natural gas undergoes a purification process to remove impurities and other unwanted components. It is then transported through a network of gas pipelines or liquefied for transport in cryogenic tanks, depending on the distance and final destination.
Uses and Applications: What Is Natural Gas For?
Natural gas is a versatile energy source and is used in a variety of applications in modern society.
Below are some of its most common uses:
Electricity Generation: Natural gas is widely used in electricity generation around the world. Combined cycle and simple cycle power plants burn natural gas to produce electrical energy. This use is popular due to its efficiency and ability to respond quickly to power demand.
Heating and Cooling: Also used for heating in many homes and commercial buildings. In addition, it is a source of energy for air conditioning and central heating systems, as it is efficient and reliable.
Cooking and hot water: Many homes use natural gas for cooking and heating water. Gas stoves and water heaters are common around the world due to their speed and temperature control, and in many countries it is cheaper than electricity.
Industry and processes: It is used in a wide variety of industrial applications, from steel and glass production to steam generation for chemical processes. An example is the manufacture of chemicals and as raw materials in the production of ammonia and fertilizers.
Transportation: As technology advances, vehicles are being developed that use natural gas as an alternative fuel. Natural gas vehicles are cleaner in terms of emissions and offer a greener alternative to gasoline and diesel.
Drawbacks and Controversies
Despite its versatility and efficiency, natural gas is not without its disadvantages and controversies.
Some of the most notable problems are:
Carbon emissions: Despite being cleaner compared to other fossil fuels , burning natural gas still emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. These emissions contribute to climate change.
Environmental impact: The extraction and production of natural gas can have negative environmental impacts, such as water pollution and landscape degradation. Additionally, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is a controversial technique used in the extraction of natural gas.
Energy dependence: Dependence on natural gas as an energy source can make nations vulnerable to price volatility in international markets.
Resource depletion: As with other fossil fuels , as large quantities of natural gas are extracted, some regions are facing depletion of their reserves, raising the question of long-term sustainability.
Competition with renewable energies: The expansion of natural gas can slow down investment in renewable energy sources and delay the transition towards a more sustainable energy matrix.
Natural Gas Vs Solar Energy
Natural gas and solar energy are related in the transition towards a more sustainable energy matrix.
Natural gas, a cleaner fossil energy source compared to coal and oil, is often used as a backup for intermittent solar generation. Natural gas combined cycle plants can efficiently provide power when solar generation is not available, helping to maintain the stability of the electrical grid.
However, as solar energy becomes more cost-competitive and adoption grows, natural gas faces competition in electricity generation. The expansion of photovoltaic and thermal solar energy and other renewable energy sources drives the transition towards a cleaner and more sustainable energy matrix.
The relationship between both energy sources reflects the changing dynamics in the energy landscape, where solar generation plays an increasingly important role in reducing gas emissions and diversifying the energy source, in line with the objectives of fight climate change and promote energy sustainability.
In short, natural gas is a versatile fossil energy source that is used in a wide range of applications, from electricity generation to heating and manufacturing. Despite its advantages, its use raises environmental and economic concerns, and its future is closely linked to the search for more sustainable energy solutions.