industrial gas engineer -distribution of natural gas

Why Does Natural Gas Possess A Substantial Sulphuric Smell?

The 2020s is a period of change for the UK gas industry, as it shifts and adapts to the needs of future energy sectors, with industrial gas engineers ready to lead the way in these new growth sectors.

Despite the change in focus, natural gas is still a key part of so many businesses, homes and offices, as a dependable supply of energy and heat, to the point that most of the qualities of natural gas are known not only to experts in the fields but also anyone who has operated a fire, hob or oven.

The most important safety rule is to call an emergency engineer if you notice a distinct sulphuric smell, often described as resembling the smell of rotten eggs.

This smell is produced by mixing natural gas with methyl mercaptan, a byproduct of the paper production process, and is so potent that it immediately warns people of a problematic gas leak and helps people track a rough location of where this issue might be.

Whilst this mechanism is well known, what is far less known is why any smell was added to natural gas, why this distinct smell was chosen in particular, and when it started to take effect in the UK.

The answers to these questions are the result of a mix of natural serendipity, technological advances and the catalytic nature of tragedy, with the latter having the biggest and most illustrative effect.

The Smell Of Safety

Part of the reason why the smell was chosen was familiarity; before the development of the cleaner forms of natural gas, the main type of fossil gas used in heating, lighting and power was coal gas or town gas.

This gas, originally produced as a byproduct of the production of the solid fuel coke, had a lot of chemicals mixed into it, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulphur, which also has the distinct smell now associated with natural gas.

Because people already associated the smell with exceptionally toxic substances, it was a good choice to add to natural gas supplies if you want people to immediately react to a potentially dangerous leak.

As well as this, it is a particularly strong and unpleasant smell, creating a strong, instinctive reaction that something is amiss.

These all explain why mercaptan was chosen specifically, but the reason why a smell is mixed into natural gas at all is that without any kind of treatment, natural gas has no smell and no colour, so it is almost impossible to notice without specialist tools.

An example of why this is so dangerous was discovered on 18th March 1937, at the New London School in Texas.

In the 1930s, the district of New London was one of the few that had thrived during the great depression due to the oil and gas supplies found in the area and was rather unusual for its time by featuring gas heaters rather than a conventional boiler heating system.

The gas was sourced as a waste byproduct of oil refining operations in the area, which is why it was untreated. The only warning sign of a leak was a growing number of students complaining about headaches.

At 3:17pm, after manual training instructor Lemmie Butler turned on an electric sander, the spark from the switch ignited the gas, causing an explosion that killed at least 294 people and injured over 300 more. Many of the victims were children.

The story spread through the distribution of newsreel of the disaster as well as through the quick intervention and arrival of parents, roughnecks, rescue workers and reporters to the scene.

Famed journalist Walter Cronkite, then a young journalist, later noted that nothing in his life or his studies prepared him for the story, and like many of the reporters who made it on the scene, became involved with the efforts to rescue as many children as possible.

Within weeks of the tragedy, blamed on a faulty gas connection that was not spotted due to the odourless nature of natural gas, mercaptan was added to natural gas supplies and the practice of gas engineering was regulated in the state.

The combination of better gas engineers and an easier, faster way to detect leaks combined to help avoid a tragedy of the kind seen in New London from happening again, and if hydrogen gas becomes the next main fuel for industry, it will likely be treated with the same smell.

By the time the UK widely adopted natural gas as opposed to town gas as a primary fuel source, the use of mercaptan was already ubiquitous.

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