Natural gas is a gaseous fossil fuel consisting primarily of methane but including significant quantities of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed prior to use as a consumer fuel —as well as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide.It is found in oil fields (associated) either dissolved or isolated in natural gas fields (non-associated), and in coal beds (as coalbed methane). When methane-rich gases are produced by the anaerobic decay of non-fossil organic material, these are referred to as biogas. Sources of biogas include swamps, marshes, and landfills (see landfill gas), as well as sewage sludge and manure by way of anaerobic digesters, in addition to enteric fermentation particularly in cattle.
Since natural gas is not a pure product, when non-associated gas is extracted from a field under supercritical (pressure/temperature) conditions, it may partially condense upon isothermic depressurizing--an effect called retrograde condensation. The liquids thus formed may get trapped by depositing in the pores of the gas reservoir. One method to deal with this problem is to reinject dried gas free of condensate to maintain the underground pressure and to allow reevaporation and extraction of condensates.
Natural gas is often informally referred to as simply gas, especially when compared to other energy sources such as electricity. Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo extensive processing to remove almost all materials other than methane. The by-products of that processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, elemental sulfur, and sometimes helium and nitrogen.
The primary component of natural gas is methane (CH4), the shortest and lightest hydrocarbon molecule. It often also contains heavier gaseous hydrocarbons such as ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10), as well as other sulfur containing gases, in varying amounts, see also natural gas condensate. Natural gas that contains hydrocarbons other than methane is called wet natural gas. Natural gas consisting only of methane is called dry natural gas.
Nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide and trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide, water and odorants can also be present. Natural gas also contains and is the primary market source of helium. Mercury is also present in small amounts in natural gas extracted from some fields.The exact composition of natural gas varies between gas fields.
Organosulfur compounds and hydrogen sulfide are common contaminants which must be removed prior to most uses. Gas with a significant amount of sulfur impurities, such as hydrogen sulfide, is termed sour gas; gas with sulfur or carbon dioxide impurities is acid gas. Processed natural gas that is available to end-users is tasteless and odorless, however, before gas is distributed to end-users, it is odorized by adding small amounts of odorants (mixtures of t-butyl mercaptan, isopropyl mercaptanthiol, [Only registered users see links. ], dimethyl sulfide and other sulfur compounds), to assist in leak detection. Processed natural gas is, in itself, harmless to the human body, however, natural gas is a simple asphyxiant and can kill if it displaces air to the point where the oxygen content will not support life.
Natural gas can also be hazardous to life and property through an explosion. Natural gas is lighter than air, and so tends to escape into the atmosphere. But when natural gas is confined, such as within a house, gas concentrations can reach explosive mixtures and, if ignited, result in blasts that can destroy buildings. Methane has a lower explosive limit of 5% in air, and an upper explosive limit of 15%. Explosive concerns with compressed natural gas used in vehicles are almost non-existent, due to the escaping nature of the gas, and the need to maintain concentrations between 5% and 15% to trigger explosions.