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What is Methane?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Methane, CH4, is a chemical compound composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. It is one of the most common gases in the universe, as well as on Earth. While it is valued for its energy-production capabilities, methane also has the ability to potentially wreak havoc on the Earth's fragile ecosystems. Therefore, the gas has properties that are both good and bad.

This gas is a type of alkane, which are compounds composed only of carbon and hydrogen atoms in various numbers. In fact, methane is the simplest form of alkane. Despite the smells that some may be tempted to associate with the gas, it is odorless and colorless. Its simplicity may be partly responsible for its proliferation in many different places and settings, and many lifeforms produce some amount of methane.

Wetlands and oceans are where most of the Earth's natural methane is produced. Thus, the gas is sometimes called swamp gas. Approximately 40% of the world's methane is produced through these areas. However, most of the rest comes from human sources, such as burning fuel and raising livestock.

Interestingly, some plants and animals produce methane through aerobic processes and others do not, studies have shown. In fact, variations can even be found within species. For example, it is reported that 1/3 of people may produce methane, but the rest do not. There is no universally-accepted explanation for this.

Methane used as energy comes mainly in the form of natural gas. It is taken out of the Earth's crust from huge natural stores called natural gas fields. Once extracted, it may be transported, by container or by pipeline to other areas around the globe.

While methane, in and of itself, is considered a harmless gas, scientists have listed it as a very potent greenhouse gas and it may have a major role in global warming. Given this consideration, many are seeking ways to limit its emission. These emissions have doubled since the Industrial Revolution more than 100 years ago and many scientists believe there is a directl correlation between the increase and global temperatures.

In addition to natural gas-fired electrical generation stations, there are other uses for methane as an energy source as well. It is currently being used to power some automobiles and NASA is considering its use as a fuel for space vehicles. If the technology can be developed, it is envisioned that the gas could be harvested from other places in the solar system to give such vehicles enough fuel to travel much greater distances than they may otherwise be able to go.

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Discussion Comments

By anon321924 — On Feb 25, 2013

How do life forms generate methane?

By chicada — On Oct 09, 2010

@ highlighter- Would it be possible to collect the carbon dioxide created by burning methane, and other hydrocarbons, and use it to feed algae and other crops in biofuel plants? It seems like creating an energy industry where power plants are dual use, both burning fuels and creating new energy form the waste, would be more efficient than what we are doing now.

It is not a fix to the energy and pollution problems, but it seems like there is little risk, a definite benefit, and it would be profitable. I couldn't think of anything more profitable than reusing waste to create a product with a guaranteed market. Biofuels are big right now, and farmers can't keep up with demand. This is why we see the price of food on the rise. It would only make sense.

By highlighter — On Oct 09, 2010

@ GlassHouse- Methane gas certainly is a hydrocarbon. Like any other hydrocarbon combustion reaction, water and carbon dioxide are the only products created. Energy is also exchanged during the reaction if you are looking to get into the thermochemistry aspect of a hydrocarbon reaction.

The water that the combustion reaction creates is in the form of water vapor, and the other product is carbon dioxide gas. This is what makes the burning of fossil fuels (hydrocarbons) so bad for the environment. Carbon dioxide is a harmful greenhouse gas, and its effect on the atmosphere is what leads to climate change. Carbon dioxide gas interrupts the solar cycle, changing all other fluid systems that are dependent on the suns energy.

By Glasshouse — On Oct 09, 2010

Can someone tell me what byproducts a methane combustion reaction creates? In addition, would you consider methane a hydrocarbon?

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