Uses In Industry

Natural gas has a multitude of industrial uses, including providing the base ingredients for such varied products as plastic, fertilizer, anti-freeze, and fabrics. In fact, industry is the largest consumer of natural gas, accounting for 43 percent of natural gas use across all sectors. Natural gas is the second most used energy source in industry, trailing only electricity. Lighting is the main use of energy in the industrial sector, which accounts for the tremendous electricity requirements of this sector. The graph below shows current as well as projected energy consumption by fuel in the industrial sector.

Industrial Primary Energy Consumption by Fuel 1970 – 2020
Source: EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2002 With Projections to 2020

Although industry accounts for a great deal of natural gas consumption in the United States, this industrial consumption is concentrated in a relatively small number of industries. Natural gas is consumed primarily in the pulp and paper, metals, chemicals, petroleum refining, stone, clay and glass, plastic, and food processing industries. These businesses account for over 84 percent of all industrial natural gas use.

Industrial Applications

Industrial applications for natural gas are many. Industrial applications include those same uses found in residential and commercial settings – heating, cooling, and cooking. Click here for a review of residential uses, and here for a review of commercial uses. Natural gas is also used for waste treatment and incineration, metals preheating (particularly for iron and steel), drying and dehumidification, glass melting, food processing, and fueling industrial boilers. Natural gas may also be used as a feedstock for the manufacturing of a number of chemicals and products. Gases such as butane, ethane, and propane may be extracted from natural gas to be used as a feedstock for such products as fertilizers and pharmaceutical products.

Natural gas as a feedstock is commonly found as a building block for methanol, which in turn has many industrial applications. Natural gas is converted to what is known as synthesis gas, which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon oxides formed through a process known as steam reforming. In this process, natural gas is exposed to a catalyst that causes oxidization of the natural gas when brought into contact with steam. This synthesis gas, once formed, may be used to produce methanol (or Methyl Alcohol), which in turn is used to produce such substances as formaldehyde, acetic acid, and MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) that is used as an additive for cleaner burning gasoline. Methanol may also be used as a fuel source in fuel cells. For more information on the production of and uses for methanol, click here.

In addition to these uses, there are a number of innovative and industry specific uses of natural gas. Natural gas desiccant systems, which are used for dehumidification, are increasingly popular in the plastics, pharmaceutical, candy, and even recycling industries. In each of these industries, moisture filled air can lead to damage of the end product during its manufacture. For example, in the plastics industry, moisture can cause cracks and blemishes during the manufacture of certain types of plastics. Adding a natural gas desiccant system to the manufacturing or drying environment allows industrial users to regulate more closely the amount of moisture in the air, leading to a more consistent and high-quality product. For more information on gas desiccant systems, click here.

Natural gas absorption systems are also being used extensively in industry to heat and cool water in an efficient, economical, and environmentally sound way. These industrial absorption systems are very similar to those used in commercial settings. To learn more about the technical aspects of absorption systems, particularly absorption cooling systems, click here.

Infrared Heating Units

Infrared (IR) heating units provide an innovative and economic method of using natural gas to generate heat in an industrial setting. They are very useful in the metals industry, as they provide innovative ways to increase the efficiency of powder-coating manufacturing processes. Infrared heaters use natural gas to more efficiently and quickly heat materials used in this process. Natural gas is combined with a panel of ceramic fibers containing a platinum catalyst, causing a reaction with oxygen to dramatically increase temperature, without even producing a flame. Using natural gas in this manner has allowed industry members to increase the speed of their manufacturing process, as well as providing a more economic alternative to electric heaters.

The Kemco Thermefficient-100 Direct Contact Water Heater
Source: Kemco Systems,

Direct Contact Water Heaters

Direct contact water heating is an application that works by having the energy from the combustion of natural gas transferred directly from the flame into the water. These systems are incredibly efficient at heating water. Normal industrial water heaters operate in the 60 – 70 percent energy efficiency range. However, direct contact water heaters can achieve efficiencies up to 99.7 percent! Obviously, this leads to tremendous cost savings in industries where hot water is essential. To learn more about direct contact water heaters, click here.

Industrial Combined Heat and Power

Industrial consumers reap great benefits from operating natural gas Combined Heat and Power (CHP) and Combined Cooling, Heat, and Power (CCHP) systems, similar to those used commercial settings. For instance, natural gas may be used to generate electricity needed in a particular industrial setting. The excess heat and steam produced from this process can be harnessed to fulfill other industrial applications, including space heating, water heating, and powering industrial boilers. Since industry is such a heavy user of energy, and particularly electricity, providing increased efficiency can save a great deal of money. The industrial sector is also subject to regulations regarding harmful emissions, and the burning attributes of natural gas help industry to reduce its emissions. To learn more about CHP/CCHP systems, click here. To learn more about the environmental advantages of using natural gas in industrial processes, clickhere.

Schematic of a Natural Gas Co-fired Boiler
Source: Acurex Energy,

Industrial Co-firing

Natural gas co-firing technologies are also helping to increase industrial energy efficiency, and reduce harmful atmospheric emissions. Co-firing is the process in which natural gas is used as a supplemental fuel in the combustion of other fuels, such as coal, wood, and biomass energy. For example, a traditional industrial wood boiler would simply burn wood to generate energy. However, in this type of boiler, a significant amount of energy is lost, and harmful emissions are very high. Adding natural gas to the combustion mix can have a two-fold effect. Natural gas emits fewer harmful substances into the air than a fuel such as wood. Since the energy needed to power the natural gas boiler remains constant, adding natural gas to the combustion mix can reduce harmful emissions.

In addition, the operational performance of the boiler, including its energy efficiency, can be improved by supplementing with natural gas. For instance, in wood fueled boilers, adding natural gas can compensate for the use of low grade, wet wood, allowing it to combust more quickly and completely. This type of co-firing can also be used in the generation of electricity, whether on-site or in a centralized power plant. To learn more about natural gas and electricity generation, click here. For more information on natural gas co-firing technologies, click here.

Natural gas has innumerable uses in industry, and new applications are being developed every day. Natural gas, being a clean, efficient source of energy and a chemical building block, is an important part of successful and environmentally sound industry in the United States. To learn more about the environmental and technological aspects of natural gas, click here.

Now that industrial uses of natural gas have been discussed, click here to learn about natural gas use in the transportation sector!