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A large white LPG propane tank outside a building

LPG (liquified petroleum gas)

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.

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  1. What is LPG?
  2. Using LPG
  3. What are the pros and cons?
  4. Find out more

What is LPG?

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. [1]

Two side-by-side green LPG propane tanks.

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 called propane 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.

Molecular structure of propane, C3H8, and butane,C4H10.

Artwork: Propane (left) and butane (right) have very simple molecular structures built from a small number of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

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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. [2] Larger household tanks are more likely to contain a majority of propane (typically 90 percent propane in North America). [3]

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 comparing calorific values of propane, butane, and natural gas.

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. [4]

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 engine.

Artwork illustrating how LPG takes up 274 times less volume

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.

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Using LPG

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 winter. [5] 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.) [6] 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. [7]

Two blue Colorado SuperShuttle airport taxis operating on LPG alternate fuel

Photo: Colorado's SuperShuttle airport taxi service has been using alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) since 1990. Some of the vans run on compressed natural gas (CNG), while others use LPG. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of NREL (US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory), image ref #45847.

What are the pros and cons?

Green portable camping stove with a white butane gas cylinder.

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. [8] 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). [9]

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. [10] 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. [11]

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Notes and references

  1.    Where does LPG come from?, World LPG Association, France, 2021.
  2.    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.
  3.    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.
  4.    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).
  5.    EIA forecasts slightly higher U.S. propane consumption this winter season, Today in Energy, EIA, October 21, 2020.
  6.    [PDF] LPG and the Global Energy Transition: A study on behalf of the World LPG Association, World LPG Association, France, 2015, p.8.
  7.    [PDF] Autogas Vehicles Catalogue 2018, World LPG Association, France, 2018.
  8.    See for example the short briefing LPG: A Primary Source of Energy in Disaster Relief, World LPG Association, France, 2015.
  9.     According to [PDF] 13: Climate Action, World LPG Association, 2020, LPG has numerous climate and air pollution benefits, but it depends what you're comparing it to. For example, burning LPG in a cookstove instead of wood fuel makes much less air pollution but higher carbon dioxide emissions (since wood fuel is generally carbon neutral). In rapidly industrializing countries such as India, LPG has a major role to play in displacing dirty solid-fuel cookstoves, which are one of the major causes of indoor air pollution. See for example the introduction to this paper: Health and Climate Impacts of Scaling Adoption of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for Clean Household Cooking in Cameroon: A Modeling Study by Chris Kypridemos, Environ Health Perspect. 2020 Apr; 128(4): 047001.
  10.    See LPG Storage Tank Accidents: Initiating Events, Causes, Scenarios, and Consequences by Kazem Sarvestani et al, Journal of Failure Analysis and Prevention, Volume 21, pages 1305–1314. Many sources assert LPG is "just as safe"; for a selection, see here.
  11.    For a slightly dated but still broadly relevant overview of LPG motoring, see "Petrol or LPG... do the fuel cost savings add up?" by Miles Brignall, The Guardian, 13 July 2012. The RAC's "What is LPG and should I convert to it?" is a more up-to-date overview.

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2009, 2023. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2009/2023) LPG (liquified petroleum gas). Retrieved from [Accessed (Insert date here)]


@misc{woodford_lpg, author = "Woodford, Chris", title = "LPG", publisher = "Explain that Stuff", year = "2009", url = "", urldate = "2023-05-23" }

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