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Methane, also known by the formula CH4, is the simplest hydrocarbon, consisting of one carbon atom linked to four hydrogen atoms. It is an odorless, colorless gas produced by cow farts and methanogenic bacteria, and is also found accompanying oil fields.
In waste management
In many modern wastewater and sludge treatment processes as well as solid organic waste management, anaerobic digestion (microbial conversion in the absence of oxygen) is used to remove pathogens and nutrients, reducing the harmful effects of our waste on the environment. Anaerobic degradation also occurs in landfills. The end product of this anaerobic processing is biogas, of which the greater part is methane and the lesser part is carbon dioxide. Biogas is a relatively clean and effective energy source, because the products of burning biogas are water and carbon dioxide. Thus anaerobic digestion gives us a renewable resource due to the constant and growing nature of human waste generation.
In global warming
As well as a fuel, it is a vicious greenhouse gas - around 24 times more effective at positive radiative forcing than carbon dioxide. The only reason that it isn't, under normal circumstances, as much of a problem as carbon dioxide is its relatively low lifetime in the atmosphere, approximately 12 years. Its global warming potential significantly reduces over time because methane oxidizes naturally in the atmosphere to produce carbon dioxide and water. But, as methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas, any rapid increase in its atmospheric concentration would be very noticeable and potentially devastating.
Methane frozen in ice
Methane that has been stored in ice (as clathrates) can be released into the atmosphere as ice caps and glaciers melt - accelerating global warming far more dramatically than CO2 could on its own. Indeed, massive events where large quantities of methane have been released from clathrates are suspected to be responsible for some of the warmest periods in Earth's history, and possibly the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian.
The amount of methane stored in ice and water, and the rate that it will be released into the atmosphere is one of the points of contention for scientists trying to model and predict climate change. In the worst case scenario, the anthropogenic component of global warming might cause enough methane to be released to make the damage sudden, devastating and irrevocable.
This is proof positive that we need to harvest as much frozen methane off the sea floors as we possibly can, before it melts and escapes into the air.Do You Believe That?
It's the cows, stupid
The release of methane by farm animals, specifically cows (but also sheep and goats), has been used as an argument for vegetarianism for several years. However, science has determined that fish oils reduce cow farts by about one-fifth. Feed a cow a fish, and it won’t fart for a day. Teach a cow to fish, and it will never emit greenhouse gas again and we're free to eat as many burgers as we like. Sort of.
As a byproduct (and product) of fracking
The process of hydraulic fracturing, pumping high pressure saline water containing catalysts into shale rock formations. This is intended to release fossil fuels, much of which is methane, into an extractable fluid form. A side effect of this is that some amount (estimates vary wildly regarding how much) of methane escapes directly to the atmosphere. The remaining methane is sold as natural gas, which when burned emits a little over half the CO2 per BTU as coal. Given the variance in estimates of leaked methane, it's not clear whether the net warming is different between fracked gas and traditional oil wells.
- Fish Oils Reduce Cow Farts
- Contrary to popular belief, cattle do not fart methane so much as burp it. See that other wiki.
- How much carbon dioxide is produced when different fuels are burned? US Energy Information Administration