Uses of Natural Gas
Natural gas is an important fuel and a raw material in manufacturing.
Article by: Hobart M. King, PhD, RPG
Natural Gas: A Fuel and a Raw Material
Natural gas is used in an amazing number of ways. Although it is widely seen as a cooking and heating fuel in most U.S. households, natural gas has many other energy and raw material uses that are a surprise to most people who learn about them.
In the United States, most natural gas is burned as a fuel. In 2012 about 30% of the energy consumed across the nation was obtained from natural gas . It was used to generate electricity, heat buildings, fuel vehicles, heat water, bake foods, power industrial furnaces, and even run air conditioners!
22 Trillion Cubic Feet
During 2009 the United States consumed about 22.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's enough gas to fill a room with a footprint the size of Pennsylvania and about 18 feet high. Most of that gas was delivered to nearly 70 million homes and places of business through more than a million miles of natural gas pipelines .
Uses of Natural Gas in US Homes
Over one-half of the homes in the United States are supplied with natural gas. About 21% of the natural gas consumed in the United States during 2013 went to homes . This gas is delivered to homes through pipelines or in tanks as CNG (compressed natural gas). Most of the natural gas consumed in homes is used for space heating and water heating. It is also used in stoves, ovens, clothes dryers, lighting fixtures and other appliances.
Uses of Natural Gas in Commercial Buildings
In 2013 about 14% of the natural gas consumed in the United States went to commercial buildings. The use of natural gas in commercial buildings is similar to its use in residences. It is used mainly for space heating, water heating and sometimes for air conditioning.
Electric Power Generation
The electric power industry was the largest consumer of natural gas in the United States during 2013. About 34% of natural gas consumption was used to make electricity.
Of the three fossil fuels used for electric power generation (coal, oil, natural gas), natural gas emits the least carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced. It emits 30% less carbon dioxide than burning oil and 45% less carbon dioxide than burning coal. Burning natural gas also releases lower amounts of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury when compared to coal and oil .
As the United States becomes more concerned about climate change, carbon dioxide emissions, and air quality, the use of natural gas for electricity generation is expected to increase.
Industrial Uses of Natural Gas
Natural gas is used in a wide variety of manufacturing processes. About 31% of the 2013 consumption of natural gas in the United States was by industry. Natural gas is used as both a raw material and as a source of heat.
Natural gas is an ingredient used to make fertilizer, antifreeze, plastics, pharmaceuticals and fabrics. It is also used to manufacture a wide range of chemicals such as ammonia, methanol, butane, ethane, propane, and acetic acid.
Many manufacturing processes require heat to melt, dry, bake, or glaze a product. Natural gas is used as a heat source in making glass, steel, cement, bricks, ceramics, tile, paper, food products and many other commodities. Natural gas is also used at many industrial facilities for incineration.
Oil & Gas and Pipeline Industry Use
Companies that produce and transport natural gas are also consumers. Transporting natural gas through pipelines requires compression stations to keep the gas pressurized and flowing through the pipeline. Many of these compression stations use natural gas as a fuel. Many oil refineries use natural gas for heating and power generation.
Natural Gas as a Vehicle Fuel
Natural gas has an enormous potential for increased use as a vehicle fuel. The main barriers to this have been the short range of the vehicles, limited refueling options, and slow refueling times. However, over the past few years refueling station prices have dropped to just a few hundred dollars, and these can be placed in residences where the vehicles can be refueled overnight or between trips.
Since about half of all residences in the United States are supplied with natural gas, the potential to increase the number of natural gas vehicles on the road is very high. In addition, the discovery of natural gas in shale deposits around the country has increased the availability of gas and decreased the price.
Natural gas has significant advantages over gasoline and diesel fuel. Natural gas vehicles emit 60-90% less smog-producing pollutants and 30-40% less greenhouse gas emissions. It also costs less per mile to operate a natural gas vehicle compared to a gasoline or diesel vehicle . And, natural gas is produced locally instead of imported.
 What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source? United States Energy Information Administration.|
 Natural Gas Distribution: Natural Gas Supply Association (2013), NaturalGas.org.
 Natural Gas and the Environment: Natural Gas Association (2013), NaturalGas.org.
 Natural Gas Vehicles: United States Department of Energy (2010), FuelEconomy.gov.
 Alternative Fuels Data Center: United States Department of Energy.
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