Propane is a simple molecule with three carbon atoms and eight atoms of hydrogen. It is also one more important hydrocarbons for the modern world in spite of that simplicity. People value it because it can hold a huge amount of energy while also being safe and easy to store. That is a rare combination, but it’s one that makes the chemical perfect for a huge number of uses. It’s important to understand anything that is as important to the modern world as propane, and the chemical is strange enough that there is plenty to learn.
1- It Can Be A Liquid Or A Gas
When people burn propane, they are usually burning it as a gas. When people store propane, they normally store it as a liquid. It can change between the two depending on the pressure at which it is stored. Propane is a liquid at high pressures, but it will turn into a gas as that pressure gets released. All chemicals will behave in that way, but propane is unusual because humans can turn it into a liquid at room temperature with a relatively low amount of pressure, while most other chemicals need to be kept under an impractically high pressure to change.
2- It’s A Byproduct
Propane is a valuable product, but it isn’t one that most producers set out to gather for its own sake. Instead, propane is a byproduct of other processes that manufacturers realized they could sell. Harvesting the propane from the environment doesn’t add much additional work, so it was an easy choice for the managers.
The process starts when fuel companies harvest natural gas or oil from the environment. Neither of those products are pure when they come out of the ground, so they need to undergo refinement before they can be sold. Propane is one of the substances that gets taken out of the natural gas during the refinement process, while oil refineries produce it when they convert petroleum into gasoline. After the refineries filter the propane out of the oil or gas, they can send it on to buyers to make sure that no fossil fuels get wasted.
3- It Can Save Lives
People in the developed world rarely have to stop and think about the fuel that they use to cook, but many people are stuck using dangerous, solid fuels such as wood or even dung. Those fuels expose the cooks to a huge amount of smoke, which is a serious health hazard. It can kill children by causing lung problems, while adults often suffer from chronic lung diseases that only lead to death in the very long term. The only way to solve that problem is to make sure that people can cook with a safe, clean fuel, and propane is the easiest way to do that.
Unlike many other fuels, propane use does not require exposure to harmful smoke. Other alternatives, such as electric stoves, require extensive infrastructure that much of the developing world lacks. Propane does not have that problem, so it’s the safest tool that many people can access even if they don’t have access to power lines and other infrastructure in their region.
4- It Can Keep Things Cool
The vast majority of people who buy propane are using it to help make something get hot, but it can also be used as part of a cooling system. It’s relatively common to do so in campers and tiny houses that are not connected to the electric grid. These systems are called absorption refrigerators, and propane is a relatively common fuel for powering them.
The refrigerators work by exposing the interior of the box to a substance that boils at a very low temperature. It takes some energy with it when it turns into a gas, which keeps the inside of the refrigerator cool. That gas then gets absorbed into a liquid, which is boiled to get the gas out again so that it can go through the system another time. Propane can serve as a source of energy to head the liquid, but it mixes of propane and a few related chemicals can also be used as the refrigerant in some systems.