The name “natural gas” might be a puzzle. After all, how could there be such a thing as unnatural gas?
The reason we call natural gas what we do has to do with history. There was a day that people made burnable gas by heating coal. The gases that came off the coal were piped around cities where they did things like light street lamps and even power cook stoves in homes.
Coal gas had its down side. For one thing, it often contained carbon monoxide. And it took energy to make the gas, so it never could be truly cheap.
Happily, geologists figured out that a gas from within the Earth would burn well. Because it came from Mother Nature rather than being manufactured by people, folks called the new energy source “natural gas.” In time, natural gas replaced coal gas.
Natural gas is mostly made up of what a chemist would call methane. Methane is odorless. In order to help people detect leaks of natural gas, a scent is added to it. If you’ve even once sniffed treated natural gas, you remember the distinctive odor and you’ll know if a natural gas leak is occurring in your kitchen.
In recent years a lot more natural gas has come on-line in our country due to new mining methods including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Fracking allows the extraction of natural gas and sometimes petroleum from rocks including shale. But now there is an even newer development that may add a lot more natural gas to what people can burn each year.
Some 50 miles out to sea, Japanese researchers and engineers have now liberated the main ingredient of natural gas from what’s called methane hydrates that lie on the seafloor. At a depth of over 3,000 feet, the Japanese tapped a vast reservoir of natural gas bound up in frozen water under high pressure on the seafloor. The hydrates are made of methane molecules trapped in ice. Some call the hydrates “ice that burns” or “fire ice.”