Where Does Propane Come From and Why Does it Matter?

August 15, 2022

Propane is a remarkable fuel source with broad applications for homes, businesses and farms.

From heaters and water heaters to gas grills, crop dryers and clothes dryers, propane appliances are efficient, clean and environmentally friendly ways to generate heat as needed, all while reducing your dependence on the electrical grid and its fossil fuel generated electricity.

Some maybe confused why propane is considered a clean fuel source – after all, it’s a burning gas of some kind and thus some kind of fossil fuel, right? Well, partly right. Propane isn’t technically a fossil fuel in and of itself, but rather a byproduct of the production and refinement of other fossil fuels.

Propane Production

Propane (C3H8) was first discovered by French chemist Marcellin Berthelot in 1857, but its potential as a fuel source was not realized until American chemist Walter S. Snelling, of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, isolated propane as a component of unrefined gasoline in 1910.

The propane industry quickly exploded as Snelling and later business partners and customers discovered its usefulness as a stable, safe, non-toxic fuel source, and the rest is history.

Today, propane is primarily produced via two avenues: during crude oil refining and during natural gas production.

Propane from Crude Oil

After crude oil is extracted from ground sources, it requires refinement before it can be turned into other kinds of fuel. A key part of this process is known as fractional distillation, in which crude oil is placed under pressure and separated into various hydrocarbons.

Crude oil is something of a wonder in that it actually consists of several widely used hydrocarbon fuels. During distillation, crude oil separates into heavier hydrocarbons, like lubricating oil, furnace fuel oil, diesel and kerosene, with lighter hydrocarbons separating out near the top, like gasoline, butane and propane. Approximately 1-4% of crude oil becomes usable propane, depending on the practices of specific oil refineries.

Propane from Natural Gas

Natural gas, another fossil fuel already existing within shale rock in a gas state, also requires refinement before use. As it’s piped around during processing, always under pressure, lighter hydrocarbons like propane and butane actually liquify and condense in pipelines. To prevent this, propane and butane are extracted, pressurized as liquids, and prepared for use as their own fuels.

Whether from natural gas or from oil, propane then goes through an odorization process. Natural propane is odorless and colorless, so the smell added allows you to easily identify a gas leak.

Why does propane production matter?

In short: because it’s already happening. Propane production is a necessary byproduct of the fossil fuels that continue to fuel industries around the world, so while the fuel exists – and offers many environmental and practical benefits! – we should use it.

It can be easy to forget that the electricity you use at home isn’t “green,” simply because you don’t see smokestacks and smog. Except in very specific locations, most electricity in the U.S. is still provided by burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. It’s “green” and efficient by the time it reaches your wall outlets, but the process to get there has been anything but.

Turning to propane as a fuel for your heater, water heater, outdoor grill or clothes dryer is a great way to reduce your reliance on the electrical grid. Propane appliances are remarkably efficient, and propane as a fuel source is safe, non-toxic and reliable. Even under lengthy storage, propane remains a stable fuel source, making it ideal for backup generators and less frequently used appliances.

The energy propane contains is already out there – you just have to take advantage of it.

If you’re interested in what propane can do for your home, business or farm, give us a call at 605-857-1111. We use the best in wireless tank monitoring and flexible delivery service to make sure your propane is ready and available for whatever comes your way.

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