AskDefine | Define methane

Dictionary Definition

methane n : a colorless odorless gas used as a fuel

User Contributed Dictionary



  • a RP /ˈmiːθeɪn/
  • a US , /ˈmɛθeɪn/, /"mETeIn/
  • Rhymes with: -ɛθeɪn


  1. organic compound uncountable The simplest aliphatic hydrocarbon, CH4, being a constituent of natural gas.
  2. organic chemistry countable Any of very many derivatives of methane.


the compound CH4
  • Breton: metan
  • Catalan: metà
  • Chinese: 甲烷
  • Czech: metan
  • Finnish: metaani
  • German: Methan
  • Greek: μεθάνιο
  • Italian: metano
  • Japanese: メタン
  • Latin: methanum
  • Polish: metan
  • Spanish: metano
  • Swedish: metan

Extensive Definition

Methane is a chemical compound with the molecular formula . It is the simplest alkane, and the principal component of natural gas. Methane's bond angles are 109.5 degrees. Burning methane in the presence of oxygen produces carbon dioxide and water. The relative abundance of methane and its clean burning process makes it a very attractive fuel. However, because it is a gas at normal temperature and pressure, methane is difficult to transport from its source. In its natural gas form, it is generally transported in bulk by pipeline or LNG carriers; few countries still transport it by truck.
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. Global warming could release this methane, which could cause a further sharp rise in global temperatures. Such releases of methane may have been a major factor in previous major extinction events. The Earth's crust also 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.)

Potential health effects

Methane is not toxic; however, it is highly flammable and may form explosive mixtures with air. Methane is violently reactive with oxidizers, halogens, and some halogen-containing compounds. Methane is also an asphyxiant and may displace oxygen in an enclosed space. Asphyxia may result if the oxygen concentration is reduced to below 19.5% by displacement. The concentrations at which flammable or explosive mixtures form are much lower than the concentration at which asphyxiation risk is significant. When structures are built on or near landfills, methane off-gas can penetrate the buildings' interiors and expose occupants to significant levels of methane. Some buildings have specially engineered recovery systems below their basements to actively capture such fugitive off-gas and vent it away from the building. An example of this type of system is in the Dakin Building, Brisbane, California.

Reactions of methane

Main reactions with methane are: combustion, steam reforming to syngas, and halogenation. In general, methane reactions are hard to control. Partial oxidation to methanol, for example, is difficult to achieve; the reaction typically progresses all the way to carbon dioxide and water.


In the combustion of methane, several steps are involved:
Methane is believed to form a formaldehyde (HCHO or ). The formaldehyde gives a formyl radical (HCO), which then forms carbon monoxide (CO). The process is called oxidative pyrolysis:
Following oxidative pyrolysis, the oxidizes, forming , replenishing the active species, and releasing heat. This occurs very quickly, usually in significantly less than a millisecond.
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:
CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O + 809 kJ

Hydrogen activation

The strength of the carbon-hydrogen covalent bond in methane is among the strongest in all hydrocarbons, and thus its use as a chemical feedstock is limited. Despite the high activation barrier for breaking the C–H bond, is still the principal starting material for manufacture of hydrogen in steam reforming. The search for catalysts which can facilitate C–H bond activation in methane and other low alkanes is an area of research with considerable industrial significance.

Reactions with halogens

Methane reacts with all halogens given appropriate conditions, as follows:
where X is a halogen: fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), or iodine (I). This mechanism for this process is called free radical halogenation.



For more on the use of methane as a fuel, see: natural gas
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.
Methane in the form of compressed natural gas is used as a fuel for vehicles, and is claimed to be more environmentally friendly than alternatives such as gasoline/petrol and diesel. 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.

Industrial uses

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.

Sources of methane

Natural gas fields

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.

Alternative sources

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, perhaps, 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.
A recent scientific experiment has also yielded results pointing to one species of plant producing trace methane..

Methane in Earth's atmosphere

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 as a greenhouse gas

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 (about 10 years), 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.

Emissions of methane

Houweling et al. (1999) give the following values for methane emissions (Tg/a=teragrams per year): 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.

Removal processes

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..

Extraterrestrial methane

Methane has been detected or is believed to exist in several locations of the solar system. It is believed to have been created by abiotic processes, with the possible exception of Mars.
  • Moon - traces are present in the thin atmosphere
  • Mars - the atmosphere contains 10 ppb methane
  • Jupiter - the atmosphere contains about 0.3% methane
  • Saturn - the atmosphere contains about 0.4% methane
  • Uranus - the atmosphere contains 2.3% methane
    • Ariel - methane is believed to be a constituent of Ariel's surface ice
    • Miranda
    • Oberon - about 20% of Oberon's surface ice is composed of methane-related carbon/nitrogen compounds
    • Titania - about 20% of Titania's surface ice is composed of methane-related organic compounds
    • Umbriel - methane is a constituent of Umbriel's surface ice
  • Neptune - the atmosphere contains 1.6% methane
    • Triton - Triton has a tenuous nitrogen atmosphere with small amounts of methane near the surface.
  • Pluto - spectroscopic analysis of Pluto's surface reveals it to contain traces of methane
    • Charon - methane is believed to be present on Charon, but it is not completely confirmed
  • Eris - infrared light from the object revealed the presence of methane ice
  • Comet Halley
  • Comet Hyakutake - terrestrial observations found ethane and methane in the comet
  • Extrasolar planet HD 189733b - This is the first detection of an organic compound on planets outside the solar system. It is unknown how it originated, when the high temperature (700°C) favors the formation of carbon monoxide instead.
  • Interstellar clouds

See also


methane in Afrikaans: Metaan
methane in Arabic: ميثان
methane in Belarusian: Метан
methane in Bosnian: Metan
methane in Breton: Metan
methane in Catalan: Metà
methane in Czech: Methan
methane in Welsh: Llosgnwy
methane in Danish: Metan
methane in German: Methan
methane in Estonian: Metaan
methane in Modern Greek (1453-): Μεθάνιο
methane in Spanish: Metano
methane in Esperanto: Metano
methane in Basque: Metano
methane in Persian: متان
methane in French: Méthane
methane in Irish: Meatán
methane in Korean: 메테인
methane in Croatian: Metan
methane in Indonesian: Metana
methane in Icelandic: Metan
methane in Italian: Metano
methane in Hebrew: מתאן
methane in Georgian: მეთანი
methane in Kurdish: Mêtan
methane in Latin: Methanum
methane in Latvian: Metāns
methane in Luxembourgish: Methan
methane in Lithuanian: Metanas
methane in Lombard: Metà (chímega)
methane in Hungarian: Metán
methane in Macedonian: Метан
methane in Marathi: मिथेन
methane in Dutch: Methaan
methane in Japanese: メタン
methane in Norwegian: Metan
methane in Norwegian Nynorsk: Metan
methane in Polish: Metan
methane in Portuguese: Metano
methane in Romanian: Metan
methane in Russian: Метан
methane in Albanian: Metani
methane in Simple English: Methane
methane in Slovak: Metán
methane in Slovenian: Metan
methane in Silesian: Metan
methane in Serbian: Метан
methane in Serbo-Croatian: Metan
methane in Finnish: Metaani
methane in Swedish: Metan
methane in Tamil: மெத்தேன்
methane in Vietnamese: Mêtan
methane in Turkish: Metan
methane in Ukrainian: Метан
methane in Chinese: 甲烷

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

alcohol, benzine, briquette, burnable, butane, carbon, charcoal, coal, coke, combustible, dope, ethane, ethanol, fireball, firing, flammable, flammable material, fuel, fuel additive, fuel dope, gas, gas carbon, gasoline, heptane, hexane, inflammable, inflammable material, isooctane, jet fuel, kerosene, methanol, natural gas, octane, oil, paraffin, peat, pentane, propane, propellant, rocket fuel, turf
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