LNG is cold (when it should be cool)

It’s incredible how misunderstood Natural Gas and especially LNG is by the general public. It’s the solution to many of our problems (at least energy wise) and still, it has a bad name. That’s a shame as this stuff is so incredibly cool, it would have to be invented if it did not exist already.

Remember the end scene from the movie Syriana when the suicide bomber slams into an LNG tanker with a boat and an RPG in hand. When the boat was about to hit the tanker, the movie fades out into white light leaving what might be happening after this moment to the imagination of the viewer.

The whole scene strongly suggests something like a mini (or maxi) nuclear bomb explodes. That’s not what the movie says explicitly but it’s hard to have any other impression.

The sheer amount of misinformation on LNG is staggering. Matched only by the amount of misinformation on unconventional gas production. Fear mongering prevents the general public from making healthy choices for the future well being of society. Sure there are risks and dangers. But it’s a better and safer and cleaner choice than many of the things we do today without even thinking about it.

Wow, is that coooool ...

Wow, is that coooool …

In many of my speeches, I liked to compare today’s LNG world to the Petrochemical industry in the seventies. Hardly breathtakingly cool, ain’t that? The most exciting thing happening to it is production of LNG on floating platforms and the specter of the US becoming a net energy exporter. Yaaaawn….

But let’s look beyond the snoring sound and you find a matter that has everything to turn the energy world, and indeed the world economy on its head. I am not only talking about the LNG as a fuel movement (although that’s really, really exciting in its own right) as the true significance is so much more important.

Biogenic LNG is superior in quality to its natural gas derived cousin (contrary to other liquid fuels) giving us the option of a renewable resource and a closed carbon cycle. Unconventional gas and methane hydrates have the potential to postpone peak oil (let’s better say peak hydrocarbon) a fantasasmic number of years into the future. Distributed generation combined with new levels of combustion efficiency and micro-generation will produce smarter and sturdier electricity (and indeed energy) grids and the best thing is that it’s all technologically right here and now. No pie in the sky research or – it’s for our grandchildren – research necessary.

So what crashes the party?

How many natural gas presentations have you seen yet? The last series of speeches I saw was as exciting as watching paint dry – and that was me as a gas professional. Imagine how nonprofessionals must feel in there. There are no iconic presenters like Steve Jobs or Tom Peters. There is no rock star like entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or James Dyson. Where are the rabid, flesh-eating opinion makers like Seth Godin or Guy Kawasaki that will rock the crowd on the tune of Natural Gas?

The truth is that Natural Gas still suffers from its long acquired image as the poor cousin of oil. Not because it’s inferior as a primary energy source (I would argue to the contrary) but firstly because it’s much harder to handle than the black gold and secondly because it’s still a carbon-based fuel which does not endear it to the tree huggers. Hardly anyone notices it for its great qualities.

In fact, if Natural Gas did not exist in the first place, it would have to be invented. Not only is it the cleanest of all hydrocarbons, it’s also very, very safe to use and a very benign substance. It’s non-toxic. Breathing some natural gas will not kill you. Of course, if there is no oxygen around anymore you would suffocate but that’s the case for anything that keeps oxygen away.

It’s also non-corrosive which is great news to the tank and pipe builders of this world. No brittleness because of material fatigue like its the case with hydrogen, no chemical interaction with the containment vessel. It’s chemically inert which makes it easy to handle. And it does not change composition no matter how long you store it as there is no microbial growth.

For those of you coming on my blog for the first time. I believe that LNG is THE next big, important liquid fuel of the planet. I do not believe that LNG will be confined to niche applications (as it is today) or be some bridging solution. No, I believe that the planet will be powered with LNG for quite a while and that it will come to play a role comparable or even more important than diesel today.

Let’s compare LNG to diesel for a second then. Both of them are hydrocarbons. Both of them are liquids. Both of them are combustibles. So far for the similarities.

For a start, diesel is a blend of different hydrocarbon molecules (about three-quarters paraffin and one-quarter aromatics) with an average chain length of 10 carbon atoms. That gives it a 2,3 hydrogen atoms per carbon atom count on average. It’s furthermore laced with important trace amounts of all kinds of other stuff such as sulfur, heavy metals, water, and microbes. It’s a pretty nasty brew.

LNG on the other side is a pretty homogenous substance of more than 90% methane (the shortest hydrocarbon molecule with the highest hydrogen per carbon ratio. It’s a full 4 hydrogen atoms per carbon. The rest is higher hydrocarbons such as Ethane, Propane, and Butane – all of them still much shorter than even the shortest diesel chains. Modern LNG is virtually sulfur-free and also free of other contaminants as they would freeze out at those very low temperatures. Water or microbes are totally absent. It’s cold – too cold for comfort – but not toxic.

There are essentially 4 kinds of emissions produced by combusting liquid fuels such as diesel. Sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon oxides and fine particles. Diesel emissions kill forests, give us respiratory diseases and are responsible for a long list of ailments that afflict us from the moment we are born and before. Diesel spills pollute large amounts of drinking water – it is said that one drop of diesel spoils the whole water reservoir although that’s surely overdoing it.

LNG on the other side has virtually no sulfur oxides (no sour rain), virtually no fine particles, very substantially lower nitrogen oxide and also much lower carbon oxide emissions per MMBtu of energy content.

When diesel droplets combust they do so by forming a grain of soot and dirt which then forms fine particles leaving the tailpipe. This is the stuff that gives us asthma and other respiratory diseases including cancer. Being a liquid it’s hard or even close to impossible to prevent this.

LNG on the other side converts to natural gas before combustion and as there is no droplet, there is also no kernel of dust that can form. Ergo, no fine particles and no lung cancer. Isn’t that cool? Besides, kernels of dust or soot mean inefficient combustion. With LNG, all the Particulate Matter problems afflicting inner cities are a thing of the past.

Producing LNG from shale or from anaerobic digesters gives us the option of breaking free from the iron grip of oil and gas exporting countries all while saving our environment for our children. The fracking opponents will jump up and say that maybe the air is clean but the groundwater is spoiled. I am not a drilling engineer but from what I have seen, fracking can be very safe. Much of the anti-frac movement is a hype like so many others before.

A world where vehicles run on electricity, CNG and LNG entices me. A world free of coal and heavy oil combustion is something I would like to leave to our children. A world, abundant with a clean energy source such as Natural Gas and LNG is what I would like to move towards.

No unrealistic green hubris but a real, technologically sound and economically solid way forward. This is Natural Gas and LNG for me. This is really cool for me. Isn’t it for you?

It’s time someone takes the torch and gives this really cool stuff its luster.

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