Methane: Blue flames and the green planet

While livestock are indeed responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s methane emissions, fully 90 to 95 percent of that is released from their noses and mouths. (photo by Dion Ogust)

I first explored this compound six-and-a-half years ago, but it’s worth a second look. For when the universe’s first- and fourth-most-abundant elements combine, the result is often a gas that, surprisingly, has recently cleaned up our air. It’s methane. Most folks call it natural gas. It’s also known as marsh gas and swamp gas, since it’s released by decomposing plants.

It has generated some local controversy because of vast methane reserves 8,000 feet below south-central New York and northern Pennsylvania: the Marcellus shale. Using the technique of hydrofracking, companies are extracting it very profitably – but not in New York, where fracking is not permitted. Because of this cheap extraction, it is steadily replacing coal as the source of US electrical generation.

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Indeed, in 2008 coal-burning generated 50 percent of the nation’s electricity. Last year coal was down to just 35 percent. And since coal is so incredibly dirty, the air is now much cleaner. That’s right, wrap your head around this: Fracking – even more than growing solar and wind utilization – is responsible for reduced carbon emissions and cleaner air to date.

Some are so opposed to methane that they cannot bring themselves to call it natural gas without putting the “natural” in quotes, which looks silly. In reality, natural gas creates about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, and about 45 percent less than burning coal.

This makes sense. Methane is CH4, meaning it has only a single carbon atom mixed with its four hydrogen atoms, and it is the latter that mostly creates the energy. By comparison, coal is a mixture of compounds and thus does not have a single formula, but if you considered it as an aggregate, it would be something like C135H96O9 – meaning that it has lots more carbon than hydrogen, much of which gets released as soot and CO2.

Methane is abundant on Jupiter and Saturn. On Uranus, it’s responsible for that world’s green color, since the gas absorbs the Sun’s red light but lets the green and blue bounce back to our eyes. Through binoculars, it’s therefore easy to see the fingerprint of this gas in space. In two weeks, on October 19, Uranus, in Pisces, will be at its closest to Earth and can actually be faintly glimpsed by the naked eye! I haven’t seen it naked-eye since the 1970s, so I’m looking forward to seeking it out this coming week, when the Moon will have left the area, leaving the required black skies.

Misconceptions abound. Most people think methane is the major component of flatus (the technical term for the gas expelled when you “pass wind”). If you’ve ever put a match to your flatus (presumably as an adolescent, and more likely if you are male), it was indeed methane that caused the burst of blue flame. However, flatus (okay, fart gas) is mostly non-flammable nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Methane is no more than ten percent. Nearly half of all adults have so little of it in their flatus that they would not be able to set it aflame. Which group are you in, do you suppose?

Cows, too, have had unfair bad press about methane. While livestock are indeed responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s methane emissions, fully 90 to 95 percent of that is released from their noses and mouths. This is the notorious “cow breath” that sometimes spoils first dates among livestock. Only five or at most ten percent gets expelled from the part that doesn’t say “Moo.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Berman is losing it! Methane actually has no smell at all!” And you’d be correct. When you smell “sewer gas” because of some backup in your septic system, the gas is indeed mostly methane, but the smell comes from minor components like hydrogen sulfide. We wouldn’t want to give swamp gas a bad rap.

 

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