Does Natural Gas Have A Future?

By Avi Banerjee

(Publish on 11 June 2021)

The rise in global temperatures has been a result of the increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution due to deforestation, intensive animal agriculture and above all the combustion of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide among others cause reflected inferred radiation heat to be trapped and reradiated back to the surface of the earth. The greenhouse effect works because the natural frequency of infrared radiation is similar and close to that of the natural frequency of these greenhouse gases. Consequently, it gives rise to the phenomena that we know in physics as resonance, as when a periodically applied force (or wave front), which in this case is the infrared radiation, is close to that of the natural frequency of the system on which it acts, which is in this case are the greenhouse gas molecules. As a result of resonance, the constructive interference gives rise to an exaggerated increase in amplitude. Through energy transformations, the gain in kinetic energy as displayed by the more exaugurated vibrations gets transferred to the surrounding gas molecules, with ultimately the energy being transformed to thermal energy which is radiated back to the earth’s surface.

In order to meet the goals as set out during the Paris climate accords in maintaining temperature rise below 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial level, we must become carbon neutral by 2050. In the fight for combatting climate change, national governments have agreed based on the scientific consensus that the world economy must phase out fossil fuels. Whilst, over the last decade especially in Europe and North America we have seen a decline in coal consumption, which is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels with its relatively lower energy density, we still haven’t really been able to shift towards renewables in any meaningful way. Instead, six years after the Paris treaty, governments have invested far more money into the shift towards natural gas, than renewables. This begs the question, does natural gas still have a future in a low carbon economy?

Natural gas has many benefits over other hydrocarbons such as petroleum, as it is far more energy efficient with a much higher energy density consequently producing fewer emissions per kilojoule. Whilst, renewables are becoming better with increasing investments and advances in technology they still cannot compete with liquid fuels for transportation specifically for shipping and aviation, residential heating, or industrial process with need for intense heat. Consequently, over the last two decades we have invested tens of billions of dollars for the necessary infrastructure for an expanded use of natural gas. So instead of completely abandoning this inbuilt resource would it not be more prudent to utilize natural gas to achieve a low carbon economy? This need not be as oxymoronic as it may initially sound.

The giants of aviation from Boeing to Airbus have committed to the expanded use of bio fuels to power their planes. However, with present technological limitations and remembering that bio fuels themselves require large areas of land necessary to cultivate the crops required for the biofuel (which may result in further deforestation and contributing to more unintended carbon emissions), there are still many challenges before biofuels can be used extensively alone. Instead, industries have shown that biofuels could be used in mixtures with natural gas which would yield significant reductions in total emissions, whilst retaining many of the physical benefits of liquid fuels.

Moreover there has been an increased interest in the expanded use for hydrogen be it through fuel cells or even energy extraction from hydrogen gas. Whilst battery storage electric vehicles may very well dominate over hydrogen powered one, for shipping or aviation batteries are not a suitable substitute to hydrocarbons. Due to the large weight and volume necessary for the batteries to achieve the necessary range due to the low energy density of lithium ion cells, hydrogen may very well be a potential alternative for the future.

Whilst hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis through separating the hydrogen ions from the H2O molecules using electricity, which could be powered using renewable sources like wind or solar, yet the vast majority of the hydrogen that we produce is through a process called steam reforming. Even this highlights the need for natural gas because steam reformation occurs at high temperatures with  hydrogen being separated from methane gas, which is typically a large constituent of natural gas. Therefore, even if the economy even if we are to move to a hydrogen dominated economy, there would be a clear need for natural gas.

We have to get to carbon neutrality and in the coming, however this cannot be achieved on the whims of climate activists, no matter how good their intentions are. We have to have a technologically feasible and economically sustainable path. Natural gas could very well be our answer, as it could act a transitionary energy source, as we work toward the final demise off hydrocarbons as an energy source.

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