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Why Is Methane Gas Called Natural Gas?

The vast majority of people in the UK will at some point interact with natural gas, either directly as part of appliances like boilers or ovens, as part of their working or business lives, or as part of the production of the goods they buy.

It is an exceptionally important fuel that keeps Britain moving, which is an important reason to get in touch with a commercial gas engineer to ensure that this supply is not disrupted and new installations can be easily installed.

Whilst natural gas has been used for thousands of years in areas close to a gas well, it took until the development of pipelines for its worth to be truly established.

Part of the process of developing natural gas from a barely understood natural phenomenon into the fuel of industry for nearly a century involves the name, and its origin and the motivations for its invention are somewhat unusual.

Inflammable Air

Before methane was widely used as a fuel, heat and lighting source, the main source of gas fuel was coal gas, made as a byproduct of coke ovens, and consisting of a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Much like coal itself when it is burned, coal gas produced a lot of smoggy, highly toxic byproducts, and in the early part of the Industrial Revolution, smog and black clouds over industrious cities were already a major issue, as was consumption and sulphur poisoning.

It worked but was clearly an unpleasant solution, and in that problem, American entrepreneur William Hart found a solution.

After he drilled the first methane gas well in the United States starting in 1921 in Fredonia, New York, he started to supply the new gas as an “inflammable air”.

Compared to the particulate-filled, smelly and soot-causing coal gas, fossil gas produced far fewer of these particular pollutants when burned, and was also absent of both colour and odour, meaning that it was far less troublesome to use.

When fossil gas began to catch on, it was marketed as “nature’s gas” and promoted heavily as a cleaner energy supply compared to what would later be known as syngas.

Part of the reason for this is tied to the story of its discovery; natural gas found underneath a body of water would sometimes cause bubbles on the surface of a body of water such as Lake Erie, and could be set alight.

This created the unusual sight of fire dancing on the surface of the water, something historically attributed to supernatural or theological reasons.

Indigenous Americans had demonstrated this to missionaries and settlers in the 1700s, and by 1821 the phenomenon was well-known, albeit perhaps not terribly well understood, usually treated as more of a curiosity than a potential fuel source.

When it started being used widely, the name referred to how the gas ultimately was sourced from the earth compared to how “syngas” was a byproduct of industrial processes, something that became increasingly desirable during an age when pollution was becoming a major problem.

Nature is a very popular word in branding and advertising, and so it would quickly become the standard term used to describe natural gas compared to its unnatural alternatives, and given that most people tend to have a bias towards natural objects and products, natural gas became very popular in part because of its name.

At the time, when its potential was only just being realised, it was seen as a vital fuel to transition from the first, grubby and soot-covered part of the industrial revolution into a cleaner industrial age.

This name would remain popular for the remainder of the 19th century and much of the 20th, until the development of pipeline networks allowed for natural gas to be widely sourced and delivered to homes and places of businesses on tap, albeit with mercaptan to indicate the presence of the odourless gas.

However, by the time it became almost ubiquitous, the terminology began to change. For example, when technologies emerged that allowed for the liquefaction of methane, the resulting product was not known as liquefied natural gas but liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

There are various names that have been suggested to reflect this change in the purpose and role of natural gas, including fossil gas, methane gas and petroleum gas.

However, partly due to tradition, the name natural gas has stuck and is likely to remain for as long as natural gas continues to be used as a vital part of businesses and homes alike.

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