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Natural Gas is one of the crucial fossil fuels that provides a key energy resource for the energy balance in many countries. Power stations that produce electricity, utilities that provide energy for residential customers and metal-processors all use gas as their principal fuel. Chemical works use gas as raw materials for the manufacture of, for example, plastics, fertilizers, rubber and other such synthetic materials, rely on gas.
Almost 90% of natural gas is methane (CH4), with the rest comprised of heavier components – ethane, butane, propane plus other components, such as hydrogen sulphide, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapour and traces of helium and other inert gases.
Gas, as it arrives from a well, needs to be processed before being piped to the final consumer, which may be a steel plant, a chemical factory, area central heating boilers or an urban distribution network. This processing needs to remove any trace components that may interfere with transportation or use. For example, water vapour may react to form hydrates or it may condense and collect in bends in the pipeline, slowing the transport of the gas. Hydrogen sulphide causes serious corrosion in the pipes themselves.
Today pipelines are the principal form of transport of natural gas. As the gas passes along the pipeline it loses energy from friction and so at appropriate distances pumping stations need to be installed where the gas is compressed to the correct density. The construction and maintenance of pumping stations is not cheap, yet there is no more cost-effective means of transporting gas.
As well as pipelines, specialized sea tankers are used, which are ships on which gas may be transported in a highly cooled state as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) at temperatures of minus 160 degrees Celsius. LNG may also be transported by special rail wagons, although this is not a significant part of the market.
Natural gas has an especial advantage over other forms of fuel when used for electricity generation, as it leaves no residues when burned and as a result it is the most ecologically clean fuel. Gas-fired power stations are far Greener that their coal-fired equivalents and yet are easier to build in a shorter period of time with the ability to easily raise or lower their output. This operative ability makes them indispensible when controlling the fine balance of output versus requirement within the Grid, especially during peak usage times.
Today the reserves and extraction of natural gas in Central and Eastern Europe are inadequate to meet continually growing demand, which necessitates increases in the level of import. Europe now imports over half its natural gas requirement from Russia, Norway and Algeria.