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Uses of Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids

chart showing U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquids consumption by type, 2014
chart of U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquid consumption by end-use sector, 2014

Did you know?

Propane naturally occurs as a gas, but it can be pressurized and/or cooled into a liquid. Because propane is 270 times more compact as a liquid than as a gas, it is transported and stored in its liquid state. Propane becomes a gas again when a valve is opened to release it from its pressurized container. When returned to atmospheric pressure, propane becomes a gas so that it can be burned in stoves and heaters.

Hydrocarbon gas liquids have many uses

Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) are versatile products used in every end-use sector—residential, commercial, industrial (manufacturing and agriculture), transportation, and electric power. The chemical compositions of HGL purity products (HGL streams with at a minimum of 90% of one type of HGL) are similar, but their uses vary.

Hydrocarbon gas liquids, uses, products, and consumers

HGL Uses End-use products End-use sectors
Ethane Petrochemical feedstock for ethylene production; power generation Plastics; anti-freeze; detergents Industrial
Propane Fuel for space heating, water heating, cooking, drying, and transportation; petrochemical feedstock Fuel for heating, cooking, and drying; plastics Industrial (includes manufacturing and agriculture), residential, commercial, and transportation
Butanes: normal butane and isobutane Petrochemical and petroleum refinery feedstock; motor gasoline blending Motor gasoline; plastics; synthetic rubber; lighter fuel Industrial and transportation
Natural gasoline (pentanes plus) Petrochemical feedstock; additive to motor gasoline; diluent for heavy crude oil Motor gasoline; ethanol denaturant; solvents Industrial and transportation
Refinery olefins (ethylene, propylene, normal butylene, and isobutylene) Intermediate feedstocks in the petrochemical industry Plastics; artificial rubber; paints and solvents; resins Industrial

Propane is used as a fuel and is used to make chemicals

Most of the propane consumed in the United States is used as a fuel, generally in areas where the supply of natural gas is limited or not available. This use is highly seasonal, with the largest consumption occurring in the fall and winter months. Propane sold as a fuel for the consumer market is generally defined as HD-5, which contains a minimum of 90% propane by volume, with small quantities of other hydrocarbon gases. HD-10, which contains up to 10% propylene, is the accepted standard for propane in California.

There are two general market categories for propane: consumer (primarily as fuel) and nonconsumer (primarily for nonfuel or feedstock uses). There are four major consumer uses of propane:

  • In homes, for space heating and water heating; for cooking; for drying clothes; and for fueling gas fireplaces, barbecue grills, and backup electrical generators
  • On farms, for heating livestock housing and greenhouses, for drying crops, for pest and weed control, and for powering farm equipment and irrigation pumps
  • In businesses and industry, to power fork lifts, electric welders, and other equipment
  • As a fuel for on-road internal combustion engine vehicles such as cars, school busses, or delivery vans, and non-road vehicles such as tractors and lawn mowers

The nonconsumer market for propane is the petrochemical industry. The primary use of propane in the petrochemical industry is as a feedstock, along with ethane and naphtha, in petrochemical crackers to produce ethylene, propylene, and other olefins. Propane can also be used as a dedicated feedstock in the petrochemical industry for on-purpose propylene production. Propylene and the other olefins may be converted into a variety of products, mostly plastics and resins, and also glues, solvents, and coatings.

Ethane is mainly used to produce ethylene, a feedstock to make plastics

Ethane is mainly used to produce ethylene, which is then used by the petrochemical industry to produce a range of intermediate products, most of which are converted into plastics. Ethane consumption in the United States has increased over the past several years because of its increased supply and lower cost relative to other petrochemical feedstocks like propane and naphtha. Ethane can also be used directly as a fuel for power generation, either on its own or blended with natural gas.

Because demand for ethane is almost entirely in the petrochemical sector, and because this product is difficult to transport by any mode other than in dedicated pipelines, supply and demand for ethane must be closely matched. The increase in the supply of ethane starting in 2008, along with other natural gas plant liquids (NGPL), has resulted in some natural gas processors choosing not to recover the ethane that is produced with raw natural gas. Instead, this ethane is left in the natural gas that enters the interstate natural gas pipeline system. This process is referred to as ethane rejection, because the producer rejects the ethane stream into the dry natural gas instead of recovering it along with other HGL.

The presence of ethane in dry natural gas boosts its heat value—calculated in British thermal units (Btu) per standard cubic foot of gas (Btu/scf)—above the heat value of methane (CH4), which is approximately 1,010 Btu/scf. Most of the additional heat content of pipeline-delivered natural gas above the 1,010 Btu/scf level can generally be attributed to the ethane contained in the natural gas transported in pipelines. The U.S. Energy Information Administration publishes the heat content of natural gas delivered to consumers in each state. Not only does the petrochemical industry consume ethane, but so does every natural gas consumer in the United States to some degree.

Butanes: normal butane and isobutane are mostly used as blending stocks for gasoline

Although some normal butane is used as a fuel for lighters, most of it is blended into gasoline, especially during the cooler months. Because demand for isobutane exceeds supply, normal butane is also converted into isobutane through isomerization. Normal butane can also be used as a feedstock in the petrochemical industry. When normal butane is used in petrochemical cracking, the process yields (among other chemicals) butadiene, which is a precursor to synthetic rubber.

Isobutane, whether from natural gas plants, refineries, or isomerized from normal butane, is used to produce alkylates, which increase octane in gasoline and control the volatility of gasoline. High-purity isobutane can also be used as a refrigerant.

Natural gasoline is used in fuels and in oil transportation

Natural gasoline (also known as pentanes plus) can be blended into the fuels used in internal combustion engines, particularly motor gasoline. In the United States, natural gasoline is added to fuel ethanol as a denaturant to make the ethanol undrinkable (this is required by law). Some ethanol producers use natural gasoline to make E85.

About half of U.S. natural gasoline production is exported to Canada where it is used as a diluent (to reduce viscosity) for heavy crude oil, so that the crude oil can be more easily moved in pipelines and railcars.

Last updated: December 22, 2015

Image of U.S. monthly propane demand by residential, commercial, and transportation sectors, 2010–14
chart showing U.S. residential propane consumption by end use, 2009
Image of U.S. residential propane consumption by U.S. Census Region, 2009

Propane is the hydrocarbon gas liquid (HGL) that many consumers are most likely to be familiar with or most likely consume directly. Consumer-grade propane sold as a fuel for the consumer market contains a minimum of 90% propane by volume. The remaining volume may include other hydrocarbon gas liquids. Propane is an important fuel for some residential consumers and farmers, with distinct patterns in response to seasonal changes and other influences.

The residential sector is the largest consumer of consumer-grade propane. Residential consumption of propane is highest in the winter, and it is mostly used for space heating. Residential consumption of consumer-grade propane generally occurs in rural areas where alternatives to propane (natural gas, electricity, heating oil, and wood fuels) are limited or expensive. Propane is used throughout the year for water heating, cooking, and clothes drying. The Residential Energy Consumption Survey reports more than 40 million U.S. households use propane for outdoor grilling, a use that occurs mainly in warmer months and throughout the country.

Propane use by the commercial sector is similar to residential propane use, although in much smaller quantities overall. Propane is also used as fuel for forklifts and other equipment in construction, factories, and warehouses, and this use is included in industrial and commercial sector consumption.

The industrial sector includes the petrochemical industry and the agricultural sector. The petrochemical industry is generally flexible in its use of propane and tends to buy propane during the spring and summer when, because of lower demand from other sectors, prices for propane are usually lower than in the autumn and winter.

Agricultural demand for propane generally has two peaks: in the late summer and early autumn after the harvest, and again during the peak of winter. The late summer/early autumn rise in demand is associated with drying grain crops like corn. If corn harvests are large and the weather is wet, propane demand may surge, as it did in the autumn and winter of 2013. Farmers also use propane to heat livestock housing and greenhouses. If the weather is cold and their onsite propane storage is insufficient, their additional demand can be significant.

The transportation sector contributes the smallest share of total U.S. propane consumption; about 1% in 2014. Most of this propane use is by operators of vehicle fleets, such as delivery and utility companies, and government and transit agencies. Total transportation sector propane demand is generally flat throughout the year.

Last updated: March 3, 2016