With a Little Ingenuity, Propane Mimics Natural Gas

Propane can do a passable imitation of methane (above), the primary component in natural gas. At least after a little coaxing. (image: energy.alberta.ca)

A wave of wintry weather is moving across the country, pushing the demand for home heating fuels up sharply this week. In Colorado, temperatures have dropped below zero and some energy vendors predict they’ll post new records for consumption. One natural gas firm said that on Tuesday customers burned twice as much of the stuff — 200 million cubic feet — than on a typical winter day. So to supplement the inventory-straining demand, Colorado Springs Utilities mixes up a cocktail of vaporized propane and air and sends that down the pipe masquerading as natural gas, reports the local NBC affiliate, News First 5.

In short, liquid propane is depressurized to a gas state and mixed with compressed air. The company calls the combo a “synthetic natural gas,” but it might be more accurate to call it diluted propane. Propane and methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — are close chemical cousins and both hydrocarbons. And converting the liquid propane to a gas solves the primary difference in the functionality of the two fuels: Propane is typically transported as a liquid, natural gas as a gas. Your furnace can’t tell the difference between the two, the utility company says.

(Side note: Don’t try any of this chemistry yourself.)

The conversion helps the company maintain steady gas stockpiles and rates during peak demand, the company said. Though the economics on the arrangement cannot be ideal: Propane is selling at record highs right now, while natural gas is selling at two-year lows.

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