Advantages of Natural Gas

Natural Gas Production And Its Use

History of Natural Gas

The modern day use of natural gas is so widespread that most people living today can’t remember a day without it. But how long has man known about natural gas and what do we know about the history of natural gas?

Natural gas isn’t anything new. It’s been around longer than any of our ancestors. Since natural gas is formed deep below the Earth’s surface, only within the last 50 years, has man had any good method, or for that matter, any reason to explore its existence.

The Early Findings of Natural Gas

Believe it or not, the first record of man and the burning of natural gas go back over 3,000 years. Even though it was discovered, it wasn’t understood at all. In fact, natural gas had only a mystical appeal to man at that time. Occasionally lightning would strike and ignite natural gas that was seeping from the earth’s crust. As the gas would seep out from underneath the ground, a steady stream of fire would be produced.

 From these discoveries arose a lot of myth and superstition. Probably the most famous of these kinds of flames happened on Mount Parnassus in ancient Greece about 1400 B.C. A goat herdsman was out and about when he stumbled upon what appeared to be a burning spring. He saw a flame rising from a crack in a rock. Believing this flame to be of divine origin, the Greeks built a temple on top of it. That was the beginning of what we know as the Oracle of Delphi. The flame and mind altering vapors that were produced were attributed to a divine source. Some would inhale the vapors so they “could prophesy.” For over a thousand years, people would travel to the hill to consult the Oracle. Farmers would consult the Oracle on matters of planting and harvesting. Even famous world leaders such as Alexander the Great would consult the Oracle.

A number of these kinds of springs were found throughout the regions of India, Greece and Persia. A divine or supernatural aspect was attributed to these fires, since no one could explain their source.

The Early Uses of Natural Gas

It was about 500 B.C. when the Chinese discovered that these fires could be used to their advantage. They found places where this gas was seeping to the surface. Using bamboo shoots as makeshift pipe lines, they were able to transport this natural gas. They used the gas to boil sea water in the process of separating the salt and making the water drinkable.

French explorers saw Native Americans igniting gases that were oozing into and around Lake Erie as early as 1626. In fact, it was in this area that the American natural gas industry got its start.

The first time natural gas was used commercially was about 1785 by Britain. Natural gas, which was produced from coal, was used to light houses and even streetlights.

Picture of a Natural Gas Streetlight

In 1816, manufactured natural gas (not the kind that naturally occurs) was brought to the United States and was used to light the streets in Baltimore, Maryland. This manufactured natural gas wasn’t as environmentally friendly or as efficient as natural gas that comes from under the earth. A picture of a natural gas streetlight is here on the left.

Early Gas Exploration

The first well that was drilled for the intent of acquiring natural gas was dug by William Hart in Fredonia, New York in 1821. He had noticed some gas bubbles rising to the surface of a creek. When Hart dug down to about 27 feet, he found a larger flow of gas. Many acknowledge Hart as the “father of natural gas” in America. As a result of his findings, the first American gas company went into the business of exploring natural gas. That company was the Fredonia Gas Light Company.

The First Natural Gas Well

It was in 1859 that the first oil gas well was dug. It was Colonel Edwin Drake who dug that well. Mr. Drake gave himself the title “Colonel”. He was actually a former railroad conductor, but gave himself the title of Colonel to impress the people. He only had to dig down 69 feet to hit oil and natural gas. This is generally accepted as the beginning of the natural gas industry in America. From the well, they used a pipeline only two inches in diameter to get the natural gas into Titusville, Pennsylvania which was 5 ½ miles from the well.

Throughout most of the remainder of the 19th century, a major source for lighting was natural gas. Since there was no pipeline, carrying the gas to homes, so it was not possible to transport the gas any distance. Although natural gas was used, a majority of it was the manufactured type (from coal). Towards the end of the 19th century, electricity became more popular, and the natural gas lights were replaced with electric lights. New uses for natural gas would need to arise.

The Invention of The Bunsen Burner

It was 1885 when Robert Bunsen invented what we know as the Bunsen burner. This device mixed natural gas with air to create a constant flame. This could be used to cook or for heating. This was the gateway to other prospects for the use of natural gas. What eventually sprung from his invention were all kinds of natural gas appliances. With the invention of a thermostat which could regulate temperature, a home furnace could be developed. But an infrastructure would have to be developed before this could happen.

Prior to World War I, there wasn’t an efficient system for transporting natural gas. There was a pipeline constructed in 1891 which was 120 miles long. This pipeline carried natural gas from central Indiana into Chicago. Unfortunately, this pipeline was very primitive and very inefficient for the transporting of natural gas.

Beginning of an Infrastructure For Natural Gas Delivery

Finally in the 1920s, an effort was made to build a pipeline infrastructure, but it wasn’t until after World War II that reliable pipeline could be constructed. This was a result of new welding techniques and pipe rolling technology. A post-war boom of pipeline construction hit, and lasted well into the 1960s. During this time, there were thousands of miles of pipeline installed throughout America.

Finally, it was possible to reliably transfer natural gas long distances and actually into homes. As a result, many other uses for natural gas emerged. These included the use of natural gas to efficiently heat a home as well as household appliances such as water heaters and ovens and cook stoves. Natural gas was also used to generate electricity. It gained popularity as its uses kept expanding.

Natural Gas And Vehicles

Is using natural gas in engines a new idea? The answer is NO! In fact, the first natural gas engine was built in 1860. It was actually built before the gasoline engine was developed. Natural gas vehicles have been used in the United States since the 1960s. There are currently more than 30,000 vehicles on U.S. highways and more than 700,000 worldwide. Many city transit systems have switched their buses to compressed natural gas. Additionally, many trucking companies have recently changed, or are in the process of switching their fleets over to natural gas. In Europe, there are many choices of new natural gas cars to choose from. Of CNG cars for sale, America currently only has one, the Honda Civic GX. There are currently conversion kits for natural gas available for cars and trucks. Many trucks, pickups and vans are being converted to natural gas.

It’s interesting, but with natural gas vehicles, the lack of a fuel supply lines is the only thing holding the car industry back from booming today. That infrastructure is beginning to develop and put into place as you read this. As these supply lines develop, the automobile industry will probably take natural gas and run with it.

Government Regulations on Natural Gas

The federal government got involved in the natural gas industry in 1938. They passed the Natural Gas Act which regulated the price of natural gas as a protection for the consumer. Throughout the 70s and 80s, there were a number of gas shortages as well as price irregularities which showed that a highly regulated natural gas industry may not be best for the consumer. As we got into the early 90s, the government moved more away from regulation which allowed for a more healthy competition in the market.

Hydraulic Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) can be traced back as far as 1860. Even though it was illegal at the time, they injected wells with liquid nitroglycerin and later solidified nitroglycerin to stimulate shallow, hard rock wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and New York.  

Stanolind Oil experimentally used fracturing in southwestern Kansas in 1947. They used water along with napalm (gelled gasoline) and sand from the Arkansas River. Since 1949, nearly 2.5 million fracture treatments have been conducted worldwide. It is believed that up to 60 percent of all wells drilled today use fracturing of some kind. Fracturing significantly increases the production rate of natural gas.

In recent years hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has taken on a new twist. With the discovery of the various shale reservoirs, the industry has adapted this technology to effectively retrieve much of this natural gas that is trapped within this shale rock. Fracking, in conjunction with horizontal drilling has contributed to this new success. Using horizontal drilling, they can drill twenty or more wells from one well site.

As with all industries, natural gas started in a very simplistic way and has grown into a very large business. The history of natural gas covers more than 3000 years, but a majority of its development has taken place over the last 50 years. With the discovery of shale gas, and more importantly, with the advancement of horizontal drilling and fracking, the past five to ten years has started a new revolution in the gas industry.