Natural gas (also called fossil gas or simply gas) is a naturally occurring mixture of gaseous hydrocarbons consisting primarily of methane in addition to various smaller amounts of other higher alkanes. Usually low levels of trace gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, and helium are also present.[1] Natural gas is colorless and odorless, so odorizers such as mercaptan, which smells like sulfur or rotten eggs, are commonly added to natural gas supplies for safety so that leaks can be readily detected.[2]

Natural gas burning on a gas stove

Burning of natural gas coming out of the ground in Taiwan

Natural gas is a fossil fuel and non-renewable resource that is formed when layers of organic matter (primarily marine microorganisms[3]) decompose under anaerobic conditions and are subjected to intense heat and pressure underground over millions of years.[4] The energy that the decayed organisms originally obtained from the sun via photosynthesis is stored as chemical energy within the molecules of methane and other hydrocarbons.[5]

Natural gas can be burned for heating, cooking,[6] and electricity generation. It is also used as a chemical feedstock in the manufacture of plastics and other commercially important organic chemicals and less commonly used as a fuel for vehicles.

The extraction and consumption of natural gas is a major and growing contributor to climate change.[7][8][9] Both the gas itself (specifically methane) and carbon dioxide, which is released when natural gas is burned, are greenhouse gases.[10][11] When burned for heat or electricity, natural gas emits fewer toxic air pollutants, less carbon dioxide, and almost no particulate matter compared to other fossil and biomass fuels.[12] However, gas venting and unintended fugitive emissions throughout the supply chain can result in natural gas having a similar carbon footprint to other fossil fuels overall.[13]

Natural gas can be found in underground geological formations, often alongside other fossil fuels like coal and oil (petroleum). Most natural gas has been created through either biogenic or thermogenic processes. Biogenic gas is formed when methanogenic organisms in marshes, bogs, landfills, and shallow sediments anaerobically decompose but are not subjected to high temperatures and pressures. Thermogenic gas takes a much longer period of time to form and is created when organic matter is heated and compressed deep underground.[14][4]

During petroleum production, natural gas is sometimes flared rather than being collected and used. Before natural gas can be burned as a fuel or used in manufacturing processes, it almost always has to be processed to remove impurities such as water. The byproducts of this processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons. Hydrogen sulfide (which may be converted into pure sulfur), carbon dioxide, water vapor, and sometimes helium and nitrogen must also be removed.

Natural gas is sometimes informally referred to simply as "gas", especially when it is being compared to other energy sources, such as oil or coal. However, it is not to be confused with gasoline, which is often shortened in colloquial usage to "gas", especially in North America.[15]

Natural gas is measured in standard cubic meters or standard cubic feet. The density compared to air ranges from 0.58 (16.8 g/mole, 0.71 kg per standard cubic meter) to as high as 0.79 (22.9 g/mole, 0.97 kg per scm), but generally less than 0.64 (18.5 g/mole, 0.78 kg per scm).[16] For comparison, pure methane (16.0425 g/mole) has a density 0.5539 times that of air (0.678 kg per standard cubic meter).