Letter: Conserve natural gas at Iowa State

I read with interest the March 10 article about Iowa State’s recent boiler upgrades, which include three new natural gas boilers. I applaud the foresight of those who decided to maintain a level of fuel diversity in the ISU power supply to guard against variations in supply markets.

However, while it is undeniable that natural gas boilers produce much cleaner emissions than coal-fired boilers, as a university, state and nation, we should be cautious in our zeal to exploit this apparent new abundance of natural gas. Mother Nature took thousands of years to produce this comparatively pure and chemically simple natural resource. Methane, which comprises the majority of natural gas, is an extremely useful chemical feedstock for the production of a wide variety of commodity and specialty chemicals used by every part of our society. If you were to ask a chemical engineer walking out of Sweeny Hall whether she would prefer to use natural gas or crude oil to produce, say, a high-value polymer, she would undoubtedly choose natural gas. After natural gas is “dried” to remove water and condensable liquids, it is essentially pure methane (CH4) — a simple molecule comprised of just two elements. Crude oil, even after initial processing, contains hundreds of different compounds of myriad complex structure and elemental composition (mostly C, H, N, O and S), which require dozens of treatment steps to separate it into usable products and to remove undesirable compounds.

While natural gas can be burned for heat to produce electricity, that doesn’t mean it should be just because it’s inexpensive. To me, burning natural gas is akin to using olive oil in a lantern: yes, it works, but there are much better valued-added uses for it. It would be better to curtail the current natural gas feeding frenzy, maintain some as strategic chemical feedstock reserves for future generations, while balancing coal usage against sustainable and renewable energy sources.

I should note that my employer supplies boilers and emissions control equipment for both renewable and fossil fuels.