20 Oct The History Of Natural Gas Is Much Older Than You Think
It is difficult to conceive of the modern world without natural gas, and most homes and industrial buildings have a series of pipes fitted by an industrial gas engineer.
However, it can be just as hard to think of an ancient world in which one of the main sources of heat we use today was also used, but surprisingly, there are many examples of people experiencing and even taking advantage of natural gas resources as part of early industry.
These stories are separated by thousands of miles and often thousands of years, but show how fossil gas has been used throughout the years before the era of natural gas began in earnest.
The Flames Of Mount Chimaera
Ancient Greek mythology is filled with many strange creatures that were inspired by natural phenomena, but one of the most interesting of these is the myth of the Chimaera, a snake-goat-lion hybrid creature that terrorised the region of Lycia.
It appeared in Homer’s Iliad as a fire-breathing creature hero Bellerophon was ordered to kill by Iobates, the king of the terrorised Lycia, which he did thanks to the winged horse Pegasus.
However, whilst the creature itself is an invention of myth, it was inspired by a real phenomenon and a real place in Turkiye known as Yanartas in modern times but often referred to as Mount Chimaera.
According to Pliny the Elder, a later Roman historian, the geothermally active area burned with an undying flame during the day and at night, and was based near the city of Phaselis in what would have been Lycia.
The flames were caused by emerging methane gases that caught fire, leading to an area that during summer nights would appear to breathe fire, which could create the impression of something supernatural to those who did not understand the phenomena.
However, Greek historian Strabo, after visiting Lycia, believed strongly that Mount Chimaera was a different mountain in the region 75km away from Yanartas, because not only did it also have similar natural gas vents, but at the time would also have lions on the peak of the mountain, goat pastures in the middle and serpents at the base.
To this day, the eternal fires still burn and were even used at the time for cooking by people who lived in the area.
Outside of cooking and as part of superstitions, the first use of natural gas for an industrial process was as early as 61 BC in the Sichuan Province of ancient China as part of early salt drilling.
The region is home to several brine aquifers, and as salt was a vital preservative during a time when refrigeration was all but impossible, a dedicated salt well was dug circa 250 BC.
As a consequence of this drilling, natural gas was drilled, so in a way to make what had become a highly intensive industry more efficient, crude pipelines made from bamboo were set up to separate the gases from the brine.
These gases were redirected to a set of salt stoves that would heat vast amounts of brine, evaporating the water and leaving the salt behind.
This became a necessity because nearby sources of wood were quickly depleted due to the sheer scale of salt production in the region by that point.
These pipelines were only a few hundred metres, typically, but they did show the first known industrial use of natural gas, and the industry continued with relatively few changes for the next two millennia.
The pipe itself was also somewhat fascinating, as it was made from bamboo that was cut in half and hollowed out to create a consistent smooth surface, before being bonded with tree seed oil and lime mixed together, bound by twine string.
Even as recently as the 1950s, 95km of bamboo pipeline, in a more flexible cable form was still in active use.
It was also one of the first examples of how natural gas supplies helped to create prosperity in a region, as the region experienced huge growth as a result of the economic driving of the salt industry, and over 130,000 brine wells were dug over the lifetime of the industry.
Whilst the salt is still mined from the brine, the natural gas is significantly more valuable to the region now, and that allowed for a transition to the era of natural gas once oil and gas pipelines became more widespread and allowed for the import and export of a vital resource.
In both cases, alongside other stories of gas plumes being used for spiritual or other non-industrial purposes, it highlights just how important fossil gas has been for a large part of human history, in one form or another.