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Hydrocarbon gas liquids explained Uses of hydrocarbon gas liquids

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 that are at least 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

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Propane is used as a fuel and 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. Propane use is highly seasonal. The largest consumption occurs in the fall and winter months. Propane sold as a fuel for the consumer market is generally defined as HD-5 and is a minimum 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.

Propane has two general market categories: consumer (primarily as fuel) and nonconsumer (primarily for nonfuel or feedstock uses). Propane has four major consumer uses:

  • 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 forklifts, electric welders, and other equipment
  • As a fuel for on-road internal combustion engine vehicles such as cars, school buses, or delivery vans and non-road vehicles such as tractors and lawn mowers

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Propane naturally occurs as a gas, but it can be pressurized 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.

The nonconsumer market for propane is the petrochemical industry. The primary use of propane in the petrochemical industry, along with ethane and naphtha, is as a feedstock 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 during the past several years because of its increased supply and lower cost relative to other petrochemical feedstocks such as propane and naphtha. Ethane can also be used directly as a fuel for power generation, either on its own or blended with natural gas.

Supply and demand for ethane must be closely matched 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. In 2008, increased ethane supply, along with other natural gas plant liquids, resulted in some natural gas processors choosing not to recover the ethane that is produced with raw natural gas. When processors choose not to recover the ethane, they leave it 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 HGLs.

The presence of ethane in dry natural gas boosts its heat value above the heat value of methane (CH4), which is about 1,010 British thermal units (Btu) per standard cubic foot of gas (Btu/scf). Most of the additional heat content of pipeline-delivered natural gas that exceeds 1,010 Btu/scf is generally from the ethane contained in pipeline natural gas. EIA 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 fuel in 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 may be added to fuel ethanol as a denaturant to make fuel ethanol undrinkable, as required by law. Some ethanol producers use natural gasoline to make E85.

The United States exports natural gasoline to Canada where it is used as a diluent (to reduce viscosity) for Canada's heavy crude oil so that it can be more easily moved in pipelines and railcars.

Last updated: December 26, 2023.