Energy in the Future series: Natural Gas

Natural gas is a mixture of gases rich in hydrocarbons (methane, ethane, propane), naturally occurring in deep layers of Earth. Techniques of extractions and geological settings classify natural gas into biogas, deep natural gas, shale gas and coalbed methane. In general, burning natural gas for energy results in 50 % less CO2 emissions and in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants than burning coal or petroleum products to produce an equal amount of energy.

The most common method of extraction is hydraulic fracturing which enables to drill vertically and then split open rock formations horizontally to access larger amounts of gas. This method has contributed to the rise in production and fall in gas prices seen in the United States, Russia, the Middle East and Canada. The fastest growing use of natural gas is to generate electric power, but it remains applicable in industrial and residential markets. As a fuel, natural gas is either compressed or liquefied for easy transportation and storage. Liquified natural gas (LNG) is the preferred medium as it allows for long distance transportation and has a higher energy density. Natural gas as a cleaner energy source represents a ‘bridge’ to zero-emission fuels, adaptability of application and the possibility of lower energy prices.

Natural gas is considered to be the second-best alternative short-to-mid-term solution for railway applications after biofuels. The use of natural gas can reduce operational and maintenance costs as well as harmful emissions such as CO2 and NOx. In road vehicles, costs can be reduced by as much as 40% when using natural gas compared to diesel. Natural gas burns cleaner than petrol/diesel, consequently reducing engine wear and removing the need for expensive advanced filtration systems. In the long term, hydrogen can be extracted from natural gas (steam reformation), which can then be used in fuel cells for power generation, thus reducing harmful emissions.

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