Carbon dioxide is the chemical that has captured the attention of people interested in energy and the environment. Another chemical will get increasing press – methane.

Methane is a gas, one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. Methane is produced two ways. (Source)

  • Biologic decomposition of organic matter at shallow depths. Think of swamps, landfills, and even some shallow bedrock; also, livestock and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. These are relatively short-term timeframes.
  • Methane can also be created over millions of years by high pressure and high temperature These are the same that produce fossil fuels deep underground. Think coal, oil, and natural gas accumulations.

Methane is a part of our atmosphere in small quantities. It is a potent greenhouse gas. That is where the headlines are. “Although the concentration of methane in Earth’s atmosphere is small (around 1.8 parts per million), it is an important greenhouse gas because it is such a potent heat absorber.” (Source)

Methane is powerful and lasts a long time in the atmosphere. A double problem.

“The concentration of methane in our atmosphere has risen by about 150% since 1750, apparently largely due to human activities. Methane accounts for about 20% of the heating effects by all of the greenhouse gases combined.” (Source)

Here’s how one company describes methane:

Positive: “Methane provides a great environmental benefit, producing more heat and light energy by mass than other hydrocarbon, or fossil fuel, including coal and gasoline refined from oil, while producing significantly less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to smog and unhealthy air.”

Negative: “However, methane that is released into the atmosphere before it is burned is harmful to the environment. Because it is able to trap heat in the atmosphere, methane contributes to climate change. … And while there are natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere that help remove methane from the atmosphere, it is important for all human activities that contribute methane to the atmosphere to be conducted in ways that reduce their methane emissions.”

Methane’s varied sources contribute to the debates about how to manage the chemical and reduce its impact on the atmosphere. That is what we will look at in out next methane blog.