Propane is a gas that is found with natural gas and petroleum deposits. It is also a non-renewable energy source because it takes many millions of years to form.
It is made from the remains of animals and plants sinking to the bottoms of oceans and being pressurized under layer upon layer of rock and other sediments. Over millions of years, these layers increase in thickness.
Propane is one of the many fuels in the family of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The chemical formula for it is C3H8, indicating its three carbon molecules and eight hydrogen molecules.
During the process of purifying natural gas, gasses like butane, propane, and ethane are removed. This along with the by-product of cracking petroleum from a refinery is collected for distribution.
Propane is sent through long underground pipelines to distribution terminals strategically placed throughout a country. These distribution terminals are similar to warehouses, and store propane during times of reduced demand in underground storage caverns.
Propane is then transported via trucks, barges, railroad tank cars and tanker ships to bulk plants where smaller tanks and trucks are filled with the gas. These are called ‘bobtails’.
It is a colourless, odourless and easily flammable gaseous alkaline, which is readily liquefied by compression and cooling. An odorant called mercaptan is added to propane to indicate gas leakages similar to that of natural gas.
Propane’s physical state is sensitive to atmospheric changes. At normal temperature, propane is a gas, at moderate to lower pressure, propane changes to liquid.
Propane is stored in its liquid form in pressurized tanks, because it does not take up much space compared to its gaseous form. A 1000-gallon tank of liquid propane can supply enough cooking fuel for 5 years!
Sometimes propane cylinders come with an almost equal proportion of butane gas mixed. Countries with warmer climates have higher butane content than colder countries.
Propane is called the ‘portable gas’ because it is easier to store and transport than natural gas, since it is done in cylinders compared to long complicated pipelines.
This is because when propane is drawn from a tank, some of the liquid propane vaporizes to replace the vapour that was extracted.
It is mainly used as a domestic and industrial fuel, as a coolant (refrigerators), as a motor fuel, and other such uses as in hot air balloons.
It is an attractive fuel for developing countries, as it has become a favourite substitute to timber and other commonly used fuels. Found in cylinders they are used as domestic cooking gas and even on military bases.
Propane is used industrially, on poultry farms, for glass making and brick kilns, and other industries that use portable heating systems.
Domestically, propane is used for heating water, cooking, air conditioning, refrigerators, drying clothes, and lighting and in fireplaces. Many homes that use propane have a huge refillable propane cylinder.
In farms, propane is used to dry crops like apples, grains, tobacco, corn and soybeans, and also to ripen fruit, heat water and freeze foods. Farmers use propane flamethrowers to control weeds, heat barns, chicken houses, stock tanks, greenhouses and incubators.
Propane is also a very versatile gas that powers irrigation pumps, tractors, seedling planters and stand-by generators.
Propane is used in hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants, and Laundromats, for heating and cooling air, freezing foods, heating water, and lighting.
Industrially, propane is used in metal plants as a fuel for cutting torches, soldering, vulcanizing and heating.
Because it is portable, it is a great source of light and heat for construction and road work, to dry concrete, fuel pitch and plaster.
Since it is a low emission fuel, propane powered vehicles, such as forklifts can safely work inside factories without the risk of accidental fires.
Although propane has its many advantages, it is not as conveniently available as gasoline is. Converting automobile engines to accommodate propane is extremely expensive, and prohibited by law.
Propane powered heating systems need proper ventilation to prevent the accumulation of carbon monoxide gas, which has no taste, smell or colour. It is also a flammable compound, extra care needs to be taken when using propane powered heaters and other objects, to avoid accidental fires and explosions.
The amount of environmental pollution (Carbon monoxide) from propane-fuelled engines is less than from gasoline. Because of propane use, the hydrocarbon emissions have reduced by more than 70%.
Propane was discovered only in 1912 when an alternative to storing gasoline (which evaporated under normal conditions) was being looked for.
Dr Walter Snelling discovered its ability to be liquefied under moderate pressure. By about 1915, propane was being used commercially across America.
An interesting fact about propane is that it is relatively inexpensive compared to other fuels. While the initial cost of switching may be quite high, the later costs would be comparatively low.
Propane tanks are more puncture resistant than normal gas tanks. This means it is safer for not only use but for storage and transportation purposes too.
Because of its very low carbon monoxide emission, and other toxins, it is quite likely to be favoured as the fuel of the future because of increased global warming concerns.