Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Why Is Natural Gas A Cleaner Energy Source?

Coal, oil, and natural gas are all important fossil fuels for heating our homes, generating electricity, and fueling vehicles. These energy sources are called fossil fuels because they are formed from the fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived thousands of years ago.

However, even though all three fossil fuels are formed from decaying organisms (living things), both coal and oil produce a variety of harmful byproducts when burned, while natural gas only produces carbon dioxide and water vapor when burned. This is due to differences in their final chemical compositions, which are due to the different processes (trapping, compaction, and heating) naturally taking place underground.

In general, natural gas has the simplest chemistry and is only made of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (atoms are the fundamental building blocks of all matter), while coal and oil are much more complex.

The simple chemistry of natural gas allows it to have almost 100% energy conversion when it is being burned. This means that the majority of the fuel is being utilized for power needs and only a small amount of the fuel is not being used for power needs.

On the other hand, the harmful byproducts that coal and oil produce are a result of their incomplete energy conversion. Therefore, natural gas is considered to be the cleanest burning fossil fuel.

For more information and fun games on natural gas safety, check out Sierra Pacific's Natural Gas Safety World at

And if you ever visit Centre County, you will find that the CATA buses around town are actually running on natural gas! Check out their website for more information on these environmentally friendly buses:

Little Lion Experiment:

Natural gas collects underground by seeping into and passing through reservoir rock (a layer of spongy rock). To keep the natural gas from moving or leaking to the earth's surface, a different layer of rock called cap rock (a layer of solid rock) exists above the reservoir rock. The combination of these different rock layers allows the natural gas to accumulate until it is ready to be used for energy needs.

This experiment will help you to understand the different ways that natural gas can be trapped underground. You will need these materials:

  • sand
  • clay
  • two 8 oz. wide-mouth glass jars
  • 16 oz. of water
  • magnifying glass


  1. Feel the sand and clay with your hands. Do they feel different?
  2. Examine the sand and clay with the magnifying glass. Do they look different?
  3. Put the sand into one glass jar and the clay into the other glass jar. Fill each jar about 2/3 full.
  4. Add the water to each jar to fill the remaining space.
  5. Observe the water's behavior - Is it passing through the sand or clay to the bottom of the jar? Or is it sitting on top of the sand or clay?

The material that allows the water to pass through is acting like reservoir rock underground, which allows water to seep in. This is similar to how natural gas accumulates underground. The material that does not allow the water to pass through is acting like cap rock because it is stopping the movement of the fluid. This explains how natural gas can be trapped underground.