Natural gas is one of the world's favorite fuels, but—in its usual piped form—you can't use it just anywhere. You can't pipe gas into a car to power the engine or take it with you when you go hiking in the mountains. Nor can you
can run a gas pipe out to a boat in the middle of the ocean. And if you live somewhere reasonably rural, you probably can't even have gas at home. But there's a very simple way to enjoy the benefits of gas even when normal piped supplies are out of reach: you can convert to LPG (liquified petroleum gas)—a really convenient, super-pressurized gas stored in liquid form in a tank, canister, or bottle. Let's find out more about how it works!
Photo: A typical large LPG propane tank outside a building. Conversions to LPG are relatively simple, though bring extra safety rules and regulations. Note all the emergency notices and safety warnings on the label.
The basic idea of LPG is simple. If you're far from a gas main (the
ordinary system of natural gas supplied to buildings through a
network of pipes), simply get your gas from a large fixed tank or a portable canister or
bottle. As its name suggests, LPG is a fossil fuel closely linked to
oil. About 60 percent of the LPG people use is extracted directly
from the Earth as a byproduct of drilling for ordinary natural gas and oil. The rest is
manufactured indirectly from petroleum (crude oil) during refining, and a tiny but growing amount
(known as BioLPG or renewable LPG) is also produced from biomass or waste.
Photo: These two large propane tanks supply LPG to a remote cliffside building in Dorset, England, far from the main gas supply network.
Propane and butane
Chemically, LPG is a mixture of two flammable but nontoxic gases
and butane. Both of these are hydrocarbons (their
molecules are made from different combinations of hydrogen and carbon
atoms): propane molecules (C3H8)
have eight hydrogen atoms attached to three carbon atoms, while
butane molecules (C4H10)
have ten hydrogen atoms bonded to four carbon atoms. LPG sometimes contains a variation of butane called isobutane, which has the same component atoms (four carbons and ten hydrogens) connected together in a slightly different way.
Artwork: Propane (left) and butane (right) have very simple molecular structures built from a small number of carbon and hydrogen atoms.
Exactly which of the gases is present in LPG depends on where it
comes from, how it is supplied, and what it is being used for.
LPG typically contains a mixture of butane and propane gases, and tiny quantities of other gases are also naturally
present. Since LPG is normally odorless, small amounts of a pungent gas
such as ethanethiol (also known as ethyl mercaptan) are added to help people smell potentially dangerous gas leaks, which might otherwise go undetected.
Pure butane tends to be used more for small, portable LPG supplies in such things as boats and
gas-powered barbecue stoves. Since butane doesn't burn well at low temperatures,
portable canisters often contain a blend of 20 percent propane and 80 percent butane; propane has
a much lower boiling point so it's less affected by freezing temperatures and generally better for
year-round outdoor use in cold climates.
Larger household tanks are more likely to contain a majority of propane (typically 90 percent propane in North America).
Sometimes, LPG cans are color-coded to reflect the gas inside. In the UK, for example, Calor and other suppliers sell butane in blue cans and propane in red or green ones.
Chart: LPG packs more punch: both propane (red) and butane (blue) contain considerably more energy per cubic meter than natural gas (yellow); in other words, they're more calorific. Butane holds more energy than propane because a molecule of butane has three more atoms than a molecule of propane and three more chemical bonds holding it together. More bonds break when you burn butane, so more energy is released during combustion. Figures in megajoules per cubic meter. Data from Calor Gas UK and Natural Grid UK.
How is LPG different from LNG?
LPG is not the same thing as LNG (liquified natural gas). Natural gas is mostly methane (with small amounts
of various other gases mixed in), and LNG is essentially just a compressed, liquified version of that.
As we've just seen, LPG is mostly propane and butane.
From liquid to gas... and back again
If you could see inside an LPG tank or bottle, you'd see a liquid
not a gas. That's because the propane and butane have been compressed so they take up
something like 274 times less space than normal. (By comparison, the
air in a typical car tire is pressurized to roughly 2–3 times normal
air pressure—so the gas in an LPG tank is squeezed about 100 times more!)
Like lowering its temperature, compressing a gas (increasing its pressure)
eventually turns it into a liquid. Compressed in this way, LPG takes
up relatively little space, so those big LPG tanks you see next to
people's homes actually contain far more "gas" (in liquid form)
than you might suppose. In the same way, even a tiny canister of
camping gas (slightly bigger than a jam jar) contains a surprising
amount of energy for your cooking. When you
use LPG, it's released slowly and safely from the container through a
valve and, at that
point, turns back into a gas. In that form, it's just
like natural gas: it's a fuel rich in energy that you can burn to
release heat for cooking, heating, or powering something like a car
Artwork: Propane-based LPG is compressed into 274 times less space than its gases would normally occupy, forcing it to turn into a liquid. Butane-based LPG is compressed slightly less into about 233 times less space.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, about 5 percent of US homes use
propane as their main fuel source for home heating, and (for obvious reasons) mainly during
In wintertime, roughly half the LPG people use is consumed in homes for
heating and cooking (in other words, instead of piped natural gas).
Typically, this kind of LPG is delivered by road to a large tank placed safely
outside a home or other building (for safety reasons). It's also
possible to buy reusable gas canisters (from such companies as Calor in the UK) for powering standalone stoves, heaters, barbecues, and outdoor patio heaters (now frowned upon because of the
energy they waste to the open air). Tiny LPG canisters are also widely used in
portable hair-care appliances, such as hair-curling tongs.
The rest of the LPG people use (the other 50 percent) is split between cars,
industrial, agricultural, and commercial uses (such as gas burners on construction sites).
Although LPG provides less than 2 percent of the total energy people use,
it's still one of the most important alternatives
to gasoline. (Used this way, it's sometimes called autogas.)
There are roughly 27 million vehicles worldwide running on LPG
(including 15 million in Europe and 6 million in Asia), with about
76,000 gas filling stations worldwide (including 46,000 in Europe and 10,000 in Asia)
supplying the fuel.
Photo: Portable cooking: This camping stove has a single cooking ring
at the top, powered by the white cylinder of butane gas you see at the bottom, which looks
much like an ordinary aerosol can.
"Camping gas" is probably how most of us are likely to come across LPG.
The main reason for converting to LPG is its superb portability and
convenience: it can be used in remote places where ordinary gas supplies are unavailable. That
doesn't just mean rural homes: large LPG canisters are extremely
useful in disasters and emergencies where supplies of electricity and
gas have either been interrupted or never existed in the first place.
Although LPG is a fossil fuel, it's relatively clean compared to such
things as coal and oil (it makes less air pollution—fewer soot particulates, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur) and produces fewer
emissions of carbon dioxide (which cause global warming).
The two main disadvantages of LPG are safety and cost. Keeping a gas
pressurized at 274 times less space than it would normally occupy requires
extremely sturdy metal tanks and it's hardly surprising that LPG
containers do occasionally explode. In theory, since
LPG is highly flammable, transporting it by road and storing it in
large tanks in populated areas should be much more dangerous than
piping natural gas underground. Having said that, LPG suppliers go to
great lengths to ensure safety and LPG is generally recognized as
being just as safe, all-round, as an ordinary natural gas supply.
Cost is another potential drawback: LPG is often seen as a more expensive option,
but the exact comparison depends on how you're using it and what it's replacing.
For example, if you're using it in a remote home, you need to factor in the cost
of storage, delivery, and so on and if natural gas isn't available, the sensible
comparison is between LPG and oil.
If you can't get piped gas, and LPG is your only option, maybe that's not really such an issue.
If you're using LPG in a car, you need to compare the cost of the car itself
(or the cost of conversion), the cost of the fuel (bearing in mind that petrol holds more energy
per liter), any extra maintenance costs, and so on.
USA: Why use propane at home: Clear, informative, and reliable consumer advice site operated by the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC).
UK: Liquid Gas UK: The British trade association for the LPG industry has lots of reliable, detailed information about switching to LPG for different applications (at home, at work, and in your vehicle).
EU: Liquid Gas Europe: A trade body representing LPG suppliers and distributors; their site has quite a lot of useful information about how it believes LPG can help to meet European energy and environmental objectives.
UK: Drive LPG: A British site designed for motorists who have LPG or want to convert. Includes a calculator to help you figure out potential savings and a list of official LPG gas (filling) stations.
UK: Which gas bottle do I need?: A useful reference from the Calor Gas company explains the various different kinds of bottled propane and butane available in the UK.
Alternative Energy for Dummies by Rik DeGunther. Dummies, 2009. A very broad look at all kinds of alternative and renewable energy, including chapters on electric cars, LPG vehicles, and so on. In other words, not just a book about LPG!
Propane Powers Patrol Cars in North Carolina by Jim Motavalli. The New York Times, October 4, 2011. One police department claims to have saved 40–50 percent of fuel costs by switching to dual-fuel cars that automatically switch between propane and gasoline
↑ The boiling point of propane is −42°C (−42°F), while butane's is −2°C (28°F), so using butane becomes problematic in very cold places.
Their flame temperatures are very similar, ~1960–1970°C
(~3560–3580°F) in air.
↑ HD5 and HD10, the most common domestic
versions of propane sold in the United States, contain about 90 percent propane. HD5 has a minimum
of 90 percent propane, a maximum of 5 percent propylene, and 5 percent other ingredients (such as butane or isobutane). HD10 contains a minimum of 90 percent propane and up to 10 percent propylene.
↑ According to the UK's
National Grid, the calorific value of natural gas is quoted as 37.5–43.0 MJ per cubic meter. My calorific values for propane and butane originally came from Calor's website, which
now appears to have deleted the information. It's easy to find similar values elsewhere:
Ullman's Energy: Resources, Processes, Products quotes values of 35.8 for methane, 93.2 for propane, and ~123 for butane and isobutane (Volume 2, p.572).
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