What Is LNG and Why Is It Popular Right Now?
September 24, 2013
The landscape of the US Oil and Gas industry is evolving at a breakneck pace and much of this evolution is directly related to natural gas. Natural gas shale plays are making headlines on an almost daily basis and technology like hydraulic fracking is making the harvesting of natural gas much more efficient. As the profile of natural gas rises, so too does the profile of liquefied natural gas or LNG. However, though most people associated with the oil and gas industry, and even many people who are not, have heard of LNG, they may not be fully educated on the finer points of this exciting product. This article will briefly discuss what LNG is, how it is made, what it is used for, and why it is growing so much in popularity.
What Is LNG?
LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas or Liquid Natural Gas, and as the name implies, it is traditional natural gas which has been cooled to the point of liquefaction. Liquefied natural gas is odorless, colorless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic. It is also much more dense than gaseous natural gas. In fact, liquefied natural gas takes up about 1/600th the space that the same amount of gaseous natural gas would take up. To help get a sense of the scale reduction, imagine taking a beach ball and compressing it to the size of a pingpong ball. The considerable reduction in volume makes LNG much more efficient to transport and store than regular natural gas.
Though many Americans know little to nothing about Liquefied Natural Gas, it has actually been a part of the US energy landscape for over 100 years when the first facility in West Virginia was built to store natural gas in its liquid state. In 1914, a patent for LNG was filed and then three years later in 1917 the first commercial production of LNG began.
How Is Liquid Natural Gas Created?
LNG consists primarily of methane and it is created when natural gas is cooled to -260° Fahrenheit. During the cooling process the other components of natural gas such as water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur compounds, and other hydrocarbons are gradually removed, thereby leaving almost pure methane. This is important because many of the compounds removed during the liquefaction process could potentially damage downstream facilities. Additionally, some of the compounds would also run the risk of freezing rather than liquefying.
Though Liquefied Natural Gas is considerably denser than gaseous natural gas, it is nevertheless much lighter than water by volume. In fact, it weighs less than half the weight of water and will float if it is spilled on water. The lightweight yet highly energy dense nature of this gas makes it very efficient to transport, usually in large, ocean-going tankers which have double hulls for extra insulation designed to help keep the liquid natural gas cold.
What Is Liquified Natural Gas Used For?
Once Liquid Natural Gas has been shipped, the majority of it is re-gasified into natural gas and then distributed using conventional means such as pipelines. However, some municipalities have begun using this gas to power vehicle fleets. Since LNG burns cleaner than regular gasoline, it reduces vehicle maintenance needs and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30%-40%. Additionally, Liquefied Natural Gas fuel allows more energy to be stored onboard the vehicle in a smaller space.
If the LNG is re-gasified then it can be used in the traditional ways in which natural gas is used. Natural gas can be used to heat homes, office buildings, schools, hospitals, and other structures, or to provide fuel for cooking and household appliances such as water heaters, clothes dryers, air conditioners, space heaters, and more. Natural gas is also often used in dehumidification and on-site power generation.
Within the industrial sector, natural gas is also used as the dominant fuel source in the production of thing such as metal, paper, petroleum, chemicals, stone, clay, glass, clothing, and food processing. In addition, natural gas is commonly used as a raw material in products such as plastics, paints, fertilizers, dyes, antifreeze, and photographic film.
Another final major area in which natural gas plays a role is the generation of electricity. Due to environmental concerns as well as the abundance of natural gas, most of the United States’ recent power plants have been built to run on natural gas.
What Advantages Does LNG Offer?
As discussed above, Liquid Natural Gas is very efficient to transport. That makes it possible for natural gas deposits that are isolated from infrastructure such as pipelines, to have their product recovered and transported via tankers. LNG tankers are also very safe. In fact, it is estimated that Liquefied Natural Gas tankers have sailed over 100 million miles without a single major accident or shipboard death; though, some on-site, land-based accidents have occurred. Nevertheless, LNG is not flammable nor explosive as a liquid. When it begins to vaporize it is potentially flammable and explosive, but only within the range of 5% - 15% natural gas in air. At less than 5% there is not enough natural gas to burn, while at more than 15% there is not enough oxygen to burn.
Liquefied Natural Gas also allows for convenient storage of natural gas during off-peak times. This is called “peak-shaving” and it refers to the storage of surplus natural gas in LNG form during periods of lower energy consumption. Once energy demands rise, then it can be regasified and used to help meet the higher demand. This helps prevent energy shortages.
Why Is Liquified Natural Gas Growing So Rapidly In Popularity?
LNG is growing rapidly in popularity due to the reasons mentioned above, such as the multitude of uses and the advantages that it offers; however, it is also growing in popularity due to the overall rise in natural gas production. Thanks to advances in drilling technology as well as discoveries of new natural gas sites, the US is radically increasing its production of natural gas. This growing glut of natural gas has resulted talks about exporting the surplus overseas in the form of Liquid Natural Gas which offers new economic opportunities for the country. Facilities such as the Sabine Pass terminal, located in Louisiana, as well as the Freeport LNG terminal, located in Freeport, TX, have already received approval to begin exporting Liquid Natural Gas.
Just as the technology for natural gas recovery has advanced, so too has the technology of natural gas liquefaction. This further coincides with ever-increasing demand for fuel in developing nations, leading to a confluence of events which has created a sort of perfect storm for LNG.
As the uses, benefits, and technologies associated with LNG further increase, it seems very likely that far from scaling back or fading, this gas will only grow in popularity and profile. The US, and the gulf coast region in particular, are very well suited for this development thanks to existing structures, infrastructure, and production capabilities. This makes Liquefied Natural Gas a potentially very important source of future economic growth and sustainability.