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Propane, Organic Chemistry and Propane Gas Heaters

What is Propane - Scientists

Organic chemistry sounds pretty imposing but that doesn't mean that youreveryday life isn't effected by it. In the interest of keeping things simple, we will forgo most of the actual chemistry bits and focus on the history and application of organic chemistry and one of the most versatile products, propane.

Every organism on Earth is based on carbon so it makes sense that organic chemistry is mainly involved with carbon-based compounds, called hydrocarbons. Carbon is a highly stable element and is able to bond to lots of other elements making it very flexible.

Crude oil, also known as petroleum, is made from many different hydrocarbons. With organic chemistry, petroleum has hundreds of different products for which it can be used. As far as we are concerned here, we are only interested in what it means as far as sources of energy. Depending on how oil is processed different byproducts are created such as butane, methane, propane and gasoline, all of which can be burned or used for combustion.

What is Propane?

The Propane Council summarizes this nicely,"Sometimes referred to as liquefied petroleum gas, LP-gas, or LPG. Propane is produced from both natural gas processing and crude oil refining, in roughly equal amounts from each source. Nearly 97 percent of propane consumed in the United States is produced in North America. It is nontoxic, colorless, and virtually odorless."

Quick facts

What is Propane Hot Air Balloon
  • Propane is 1.5X more dense than air. In its raw state it will sink and "pool" on the ground.
  • Largely used as the primary fuel for hot air balloons.
  • In less scrupulous neighborhoods, a propane car fuel tank is exceedingly difficult to siphon as the fuel is stored under pressure and hard to remove.
  • When used in cars it creates 10-15% less carbon dioxide, 20% less carbon monoxide and 50-60% less hydrocarbons and nitric oxide


The history of propane is rather straight-forward. Discovered in 1910, Dr. Walter O. Snelling who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Mines as a chemist and explosives expert was investigating the vapors from a Ford Model T gasoline tank. He collected the gasoline in a jug and realized that volatile vapors were being produced as the cork kept popping out. Eventually identified as propane, through experimentation he discovered that it could be used for lighting, metal cutting, cooking and more.

In 1912 Snelling and his colleagues established American Gasol Co. and were able to compress propane into liquid, making it easier and cheaper to transport. By 1925, propane sales in the U.S. has increased to 400,000 gallons. In 1933 an odorant was created so that leaks could be detected easier. Come 1945, after the end of World War II, propane sales had reached 1 billion gallons and two years later, about 62% of U.S. homes had ranges fueled by either propane or natural gas.

What is Propane Molecule

With the establishment of the Clean Air Act in 1990, propane was approved as an alternative clean fuel to be used in transportation, heating, agriculture and more.

Today, propane is used in hundreds of thousands of vehicles. Specifically 150,000 civilian cars, 500,000 school buses, 400,000 police vehicles and 69,000 para-transit buses. Outside of transport, it has residential uses such as propane gas heaters, stoves, fireplaces, water heaters,BBQ grills and more. In agriculture and industry its used in grain dryers, generators, refrigeration, glass makers, brick kilns... the list goes on!

Is It Safe?

According to the EPA, "Propane in its liquid state has the lowest flammability range of any alternative fuel"and will only ignite when it has a very specific concentration in the air, between 2-10%. If it is above or below its ideal mixture threshold, it won't ignite, plus, it requires an extremely hot ignition source that is upward of 900 degrees Fahrenheit! In the event of a leak when used outdoors it is quite safe. For example, such as driving a propane vehicle or a propane gas heater. Thanks to the standard addition of an odorant, indoor detection is much easier to help prevent potential uncontrolled fires.

For the environment, it's included in the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and "is one of the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels." Tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that propane-fueled vehicles produce "about 50 percent fewer toxins and other smog-producing emissions than gasoline engines. Propane also is nontoxic, so it's not harmful to soil or water."

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