A Short History of the Evolving Uses of Natural Gas

Tim Miser   By Tim Miser, Associate Editor

Like most people in the power industry, we editors at Power Engineering magazine spend a lot of time looking forward. It’s required if we are to stay ahead of new projects and emerging technologies (never mind editorial deadlines).

Now and then, though, it’s instructive to look back on the industry in an attempt to maintain a sense of perspective. A magazine like Power Engineering, which has been in continuous publication since the late 1800s, has an interesting history on its own. Both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla published within these covers. Perhaps as interesting, though, is the history of natural gas generation itself.

Long before its use in power generation, natural gas had already demonstrated its utility. Its presence was known in ancient times. Some scholars have speculated that the Oracle at Delphi, located on Mount Parnassus in Greece circa 1000 B.C., owed its mystical reputation to natural gas that seeped through the rocks, mentally affecting the Pythia and her devotees, who used it as a kind of gateway to altered consciousness. Natural gas was also used more deliberately. As early as 500 or 600 B.C., the Chinese were transporting natural gas through bamboo pipelines, burning it to desalinate sea water and render it drinkable. By 100 A.D., the Persians of modern-day Iran were using natural gas in their homes. Many centuries later in 1626, French explorers observed Native Americans in New York deliberately igniting natural gas seeps around Lake Erie.

The first commercial use of natural gas occurred in England, where in 1785 it was produced from coal and used to light houses and streets. Three decades later in 1816, the residents of Baltimore, Maryland did the same, becoming the first city in the United States to harness the resource to illuminate their thoroughfares.

While in its early incarnation natural gas was used almost exclusively for light, in 1885 Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner renown) pioneered new ways to utilize the thermal properties of natural gas. In 1904 natural gas was first used to provide central heating and large-scale hot water supplies in London. Once natural gas was in common employ heating water, it was not so great a leap to use it beneath boilers in the creation of steam for industrial purposes. This paved the way for the use of natural gas in the generation of electricity, and so evolved an industry that today heats oceans of bath water and acres of casseroles, all while lighting our cities and powering the information age.

Electricity generated using natural gas turbines was first produced for public use in 1939/1940 at a plant in Neuchà¢tel, Switzerland. The total output of the turbine was 4 megawatts (MW). Before this in 1937, Sun Oil had used a gas turbine to generate air and electricity for private use at its chemical plant in Philadelphia. In 1945, a two-shaft reheat gas turbine achieved a world record 10 MW output, followed in 1948 by a combined total output of 40 MW generated at the world’s largest gas plant in Beznau, Switzerland. Clearly, Switzerland was a busy place for emerging natural gas technologies in the 1940s.

In 1960, North America claimed its piece of the pie when a power plant in Port Mann, British Columbia became the largest gas plant in the world, operating with a 100 MW capacity. A year later in 1961, the first combined-cycle plant began operation in Korneuburg, Austria. It generated 75 MW of electricity.

Since that time, generative capacities have grown exponentially, and technologies have evolved dramatically. Today’s combined-cycle plants operate with greater efficiencies and lower emissions than any other type of fossil plant, and it’s realistic to expect these numbers to continue to evolve and improve. Natural gas plants supply more than half the energy consumed in residential and commercial applications, and 41 percent of the energy used by U.S. industries, all while producing half the carbon dioxide, a third the nitrogen oxides, and one percent the sulfur oxides of the average coal-fired plant.

Admittedly, a brief anecdotal history such as this will probably not directly influence the technological or business decisions of natural gas power plants in the modern age. But perhaps the information is valuable anyway, if for no other reason than the sense of satisfaction it can bring us. Natural gas formed when organic matter from untold millions of prehistoric plants and animals was covered over by strata, decomposed, and submitted to unimaginable heat and pressure across the millennia. In this way the solar energy that living matter once absorbed from the sun was stored as carbon beneath the ground. Quite literally then, we now power our most sophisticated computer systems and communications networks on the historical light from a single star, or at the very least on the backs of John Deere-sized lizards and Cessna-scale dragonflies. We’ve come a long way baby!

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