Methane is a relatively potent greenhouse gas with a high global warming potential of 72 (averaged over 20 years) or 25 (averaged over 100 years). Methane in the atmosphere is eventually oxidized, producing carbon dioxide and water. As a result, methane in the atmosphere has a half life of seven years (if no methane was added, then every seven years, the amount of methane would halve).
The abundance of methane in the Earth's atmosphere in 1998 was 1745 parts per billion, up from 700 ppb in 1750. In the same time period, CO2 increased from 278 to 365 parts per million. The radiative forcing effect due to this increase in methane abundance is about one-third of that of the CO2 increase. In addition, there is a large, but unknown, amount of methane in methane clathrates in the ocean floors. The Earth's crust contains huge amounts of methane. Large amounts of methane are produced anaerobically by methanogenesis. Other sources include mud volcanoes which are connected with deep geological faults.
Methane is the major component of natural gas, about 87% by volume. At room temperature and standard pressure, methane is a colorless, odorless gas; the smell characteristic of natural gas is an artificial safety measure caused by the addition of an odorant, often methanethiol or ethanethiol. Methane has a boiling point of −161 °C at a pressure of one atmosphere. As a gas it is flammable only over a narrow range of concentrations (5–15%) in air. Liquid methane does not burn unless subjected to high pressure (normally 4–5 atmospheres).
Finally, the CO oxidizes, forming and releasing more heat. This process is generally slower than the other chemical steps, and typically requires a few to several milliseconds to occur.
The result of the above is the following total equation:
where X is a halogen: fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), or iodine (I). This mechanism for this process is called free radical halogenation. When X is Cl, this mechanism has the following form:
1. Radical generation:
2. Radical exchanges:
3. Radiacal extermination:
Methane is important for electrical generation by burning it as a fuel in a gas turbine or steam boiler. Compared to other hydrocarbon fuels, burning methane produces less carbon dioxide for each unit of heat released. At about 891 kJ/mol, methane's combustion heat is lower than any other hydrocarbon; but a ratio with the molecular mass (16.0 g/mol) divided by the heat of combustion (891 kJ/mol) shows that methane, being the simplest hydrocarbon, produces more heat per mass unit than other complex hydrocarbons. In many cities, methane is piped into homes for domestic heating and cooking purposes. In this context it is usually known as natural gas, and is considered to have an energy content of 39 megajoules per cubic meter, or 1,000 BTU per standard cubic foot.
Research is being conducted by NASA on methane's potential as a rocket fuel. One advantage of methane is that it is abundant in many parts of the solar system and it could potentially be harvested in situ, providing fuel for a return journey.
Methane is used in industrial chemical processes and may be transported as a refrigerated liquid (liquefied natural gas, or LNG). While leaks from a refrigerated liquid container are initially heavier than air due to the increased density of the cold gas, the gas at ambient temperature is lighter than air. Gas pipelines distribute large amounts of natural gas, of which methane is the principal component.
In the chemical industry, methane is the feedstock of choice for the production of hydrogen, methanol, acetic acid, and acetic anhydride. When used to produce any of these chemicals, methane is first converted to synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, by steam reforming. In this process, methane and steam react on a nickel catalyst at high temperatures (700–1100 °C).
The ratio of carbon monoxide to hydrogen in synthesis gas can then be adjusted via the water gas shift reaction to the appropriate value for the intended purpose.
Less significant methane-derived chemicals include acetylene, prepared by passing methane through an electric arc, and the chloromethanes (chloromethane, dichloromethane, chloroform, and carbon tetrachloride), produced by reacting methane with chlorine gas. However, the use of these chemicals is declining, acetylene as it is replaced by less costly substitutes, and the chloromethanes due to health and environmental concerns.
The major source of methane is extraction from geological deposits known as natural gas fields. It is associated with other hydrocarbon fuels and sometimes accompanied by helium and nitrogen. The gas at shallow levels (low pressure) is formed by anaerobic decay of organic matter and reworked methane from deep under the Earth's surface. In general, sediments buried deeper and at higher temperatures than those which give oil generate natural gas. Methane is also produced in considerable quantities from the decaying organic wastes of solid waste landfills.
Apart from gas fields an alternative method of obtaining methane is via biogas generated by the fermentation of organic matter including manure, wastewater sludge, municipal solid waste (including landfills), or any other biodegradable feedstock, under anaerobic conditions. Methane hydrates/clathrates (icelike combinations of methane and water on the sea floor, found in vast quantities) are a potential future source of methane. Cattle belch methane accounts for 16% of the world's annual methane emissions to the atmosphere. The livestock sector in general (primarily cattle, chickens, and pigs) produces 37% of all human-induced methane". However animals "that put their energies into making gas are less efficient at producing milk and meat". Early research has found a number of medical treatments and dietary adjustments that help limit the production of methane in ruminants.
Industrially, methane can be created from common atmospheric gases and hydrogen (produced, for example, by electrolysis) through chemical reactions such as the Sabatier process, Fischer-Tropsch process. Coal bed methane extraction is a method for extracting methane from a coal deposit, while enhanced coal bed methane recovery is a method of recovering methane from an unminable coal seam.
A recent scientific experiment has also yielded results pointing to one species of plant producing trace methane..
Early in the Earth's history—about 3.5 billion years ago—there was 1,000 times as much methane in the atmosphere as there is now. The earliest methane was released into the atmosphere by volcanic activity. During this time, Earth's earliest life appeared. These first, ancient bacteria added to the methane concentration by converting hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methane and water. Oxygen did not become a major part of the atmosphere until photosynthetic organisms evolved later in Earth's history. With no oxygen, methane stayed in the atmosphere longer and at higher concentrations than it does today.
In present times, due to the increase in oxygen, the amount of methane has decreased. The average mole concentration of methane at the Earth's surface in 1998 was 1,745 ppb. Its concentration is higher in the northern hemisphere as most sources (both natural and human) are larger. The concentrations vary seasonally with a minimum in the late summer mainly due to removal by the hydroxyl radical.
Methane is created near the surface, and it is carried into the stratosphere by rising air in the tropics. Uncontrolled build-up of methane in Earth's atmosphere is naturally checked—although human influence can upset this natural regulation—by methane's reaction with hydroxyl radicals formed from singlet oxygen atoms and with water vapor.
Methane in the Earth's atmosphere is an important greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 25 over a 100-year period. This means that a methane emission will have 25 times the impact on temperature of a carbon dioxide emission of the same mass over the following 100 years. Methane has a large effect for a brief period (a net lifetime of 8.4 years in the atmosphere), whereas carbon dioxide has a small effect for a long period (over 100 years). Because of this difference in effect and time period, the global warming potential of methane over a 20 year time period is 72. The Earth's methane concentration has increased by about 150% since 1750, and it accounts for 20% of the total radiative forcing from all of the long-lived and globally mixed greenhouse gases.
Houweling et al. (1999) give the following values for methane emissions (Tg/a=teragrams per year):
|Mass (Tg/a)||Type (%/a)||Total (%/a)|
|Wetlands (incl. Rice agriculture)||225||83||37|
|Emissions + Sinks|
|Imbalance (trend)||+20||~2.78 Tg/ppb||+7.19 ppb/a|
Living plants (e.g. forests) have recently been identified as a potentially important source of methane. A 2006 paper calculated emissions of 62–236 Tg a-1, and "this newly identified source may have important implications". However the authors stress "our findings are preliminary with regard to the methane emission strength". These findings have been called into question in a 2007 paper which found "there is no evidence for substantial aerobic methane emission by terrestrial plants, maximally 0.3% of the previously published values".
Long term atmospheric measurements of methane by NOAA show that the build up of methane has slowed dramatically over the last decade, after nearly tripling since pre-industrial times . It is thought that this reduction is due to reduced industrial emissions and drought in wetland areas.
Very recent data now suggests that methane concentrations may be rising again .
The major removal mechanism of methane from the atmosphere involves radical chemistry ; it reacts with the hydroxyl radical (·OH), initially formed from water vapor broken down by oxygen atoms that come from the cleavage of ozone by ultraviolet radiation:
This reaction in the troposphere gives a methane lifetime of 9.6 years. Two more minor sinks are soil sinks (160 year lifetime) and stratospheric loss by reaction with ·OH, ·Cl and ·O1D in the stratosphere (120 year lifetime), giving a net lifetime of 8.4 years. Oxidation of methane is the main source of water vapor in the upper stratosphere (beginning at pressure levels around 10 kPa).
The methyl radical formed in the above reaction will, during normal daytime conditions in the troposphere, usually react with another hydroxyl radical to form formaldehyde. Note that this is not strictly oxidative pyrolysis as described previously. Formaldehyde can react again with a hydroxyl radical to form carbon dioxide and more water vapor. Note that sidechains in these reatcions may interact with nitrogen compounds that will likely produce ozone, thus supplanting radicals required in the initial reaction.
At high pressures, such as are found on the bottom of the ocean, methane forms a solid clathrate with water, known as methane hydrate. An unknown, but possibly very large quantity of methane is trapped in this form in ocean sediments. The sudden release of large volumes of methane from such sediments into the atmosphere has been suggested as a possible cause for rapid global warming events in the Earth's distant past, such as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55 million years ago.
Theories suggest that should global warming cause them to heat up sufficiently, all of this methane could again be suddenly released into the atmosphere. Since methane is twenty-five times stronger (for a given weight, averaged over 100 years) than as a greenhouse gas; this would immensely magnify the greenhouse effect, heating Earth to unprecedented levels (see Clathrate gun hypothesis).
Recent measurements in Siberia show that the methane released is five times greater than previously estimated .
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