Written on: March 18, 2022
Many people don’t know the difference between propane and natural gas. This is true even of those that use propane in their homes. After all, propane and natural gas look similar when burned in heating systems and appliances. People may also wonder if the propane in their tank is as efficient, safe and eco-friendly as the alternative their local gas utility offers.
While propane and natural gas are extracted through the same process, they have significant differences in composition and sustainability.
Simply put, propane is a natural gas liquid. It’s primarily extracted from the same wells as natural gas (also called methane). Fracturing rock basins to extract methane also frees natural liquid fuels. These liquids include ethane, butane, isobutane and pentane, but propane is the most plentiful natural gas liquid.
Significantly, since natural gas liquids are a part of the methane stream coming from the well, extracting propane does not require additional drilling.
And the United States produces a lot of it! With recent advances in extraction, we have become a net exporter of propane. Indeed, we export more than we use!
This means that the propane that American homes and businesses use for heat, hot water, cooking, drying clothes, and recreation is domestically produced. In a time of spiking oil prices, that’s crucial. Even as some propane originates with crude oil production, propane prices are still somewhat insulated from the effects of overseas conflict.
At its most basic, the physical difference between methane and propane is density. Methane is lighter than air, and propane is heavier. That’s why natural gas rises and propane settles.
Propane travels as a liquid in tanks. Unlike natural gas, it isn’t dependent on utility lines. This makes it a more versatile on-site energy storage system for homes and businesses, giving consumers energy security.
Methane is a greenhouse gas. So, while burning natural gas might not release as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning coal, it’s far from green. When released in raw form, methane acts as a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
In contrast, propane is energy-efficient and clean-burning. It can reach over 90 percent efficiency in use, meaning very little heat energy is lost into the atmosphere. It’s also much cleaner than other energy forms. Propane releases less CO2 than any of the major fuels besides natural gas, but it’s also not a source of greenhouse gas. Propane contains virtually no particulate matter — a known carcinogen — and is wholly non-toxic. Even in the event of a leak, it won’t harm the air, water or soil.
And this is just the beginning of propane’s role in a green future. Today, facilities in multiple states are producing renewable propane. Renewable propane is molecularly identical to fossil propane, but it’s made using organic material like animal oils, vegetable oils, biomass, and plant matter. This feedstock is abundant, inexpensive, and requires low energy to convert. The resulting renewable fuel can have one-half to one-quarter the carbon intensity of conventional propane.
One particularly useful component of some renewable propane is Dimethyl Ether (DME). Captured from carbon in the atmosphere, DME can combine with conventional propane to form a more renewable and less carbon-intense fuel. Over time, you can expect to see 100% renewal propane used in homes, businesses, farms and vehicles.
Lawmakers, regulators, utilities and other stakeholders across this country are currently setting clean energy benchmarks aiming to get us to a net-zero-carbon future. Yet the timelines to achieve this are long. Conventional and renewable propane, however, are here today and only getting more plentiful. They are integral to any balanced green energy plan.
Want to know more about advances in renewable propane? Drop us a line for more information.