Propane's Progress: A Short History
Nov 08, 2013
Propane is the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels and is the result of a complicated chemical process which separates propane gas from a complex mixture of petrochemicals. It is believed propane-like substances have been used by man for 5,000 years, starting when Mesopotamian masonry workers and jewelers used a form of propane tar as an adhesive.
The introduction of propane as an energy source in the United States is thanks to Dr. Walter Snelling who, in 1910, discovered that volatile fumes from petroleum could be captured, processed and used to create energy. Early uses included simple lighting, metal cutting and cooking.
Snelling was an explosive expert and chemist by trade working for the U.S. Bureau of Mines when he was asked to look into vapors vented from the gasoline tank on an old Model T. Snelling bottled some of the gasoline from the Ford's tank and corked the lid. Off to the laboratory he went to get to the bottom of the vapors. As Snelling bumped down the mining road, pressure built up in the bottle until the cork popped off the top. He replaced the lid, more tightly this time, but again, the cork popped off. Once again, Snelling patted the cork securely into place and once again, vapors in the bottle forced the cork off, and the propane industry was born.
Work began immediately on controlling and packaging these vapors and in 1913, Snelling sold the patent on propane to Frank Phillips, founder of Philips Petroleum for a sum of $50,000. Over the course of the next fifteen years, U.S. propane consumption would grow to 10 million gallons annually. Propane got its industrial start as a fuel for cutting torches in Pennsylvania but would soon become a household staple.
By 1927, the Tappan Stove Company was producing gas ranges and stoves and in the following year, the first bobtail delivery truck rolled off the production line. Soon after, propane refrigerators were introduced. All of the cooking appliances and hot water in the Olympic Village at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics was fueled by propane. But there was a problem.
Propane gas allowed to build up in small, enclosed spaces can easily explode with the smallest ignition source. Propane then was in its more natural form -- odorless, colorless and tasteless. As the fuel gained popularity in American homes and industry, propane explosions became more frequent. This led to the 1933 introduction of an artificial odorant which alerted consumers when leaks or a buildup of the gas threatened safety.
Sales reached 1 billion gallons at the close of World War II with increased industrial development. By that time, 62% of American homes cooked on either natural gas or propane ranges. Water heater sales took off like wildfire along with gas powered clothes dryers. 1947 saw the first propane tanker launched. With a hauling capacity of 1.4 million gallons, the SS Natalie Warren undertook her first ocean voyage with a propane cargo.
Today, the Propane Education and Research Council reports at least 900,000 farms and agricultural operations rely on propane to dry grain, heat homes and barns and to power irrigation pumps. Studies are now underway to research orchard heaters that can protect valuable fruit crops from frost. Weed and insect control go hand-in-hand and propane is in research trials as an economical pesticide.
The National Propane Association established its first office in Washington D.C. in 1973 when the Arab oil embargo inspired propane price controls which were eliminated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The 1990 Clean Air Act listed propane as an approved alternative fuel and in the present day, 8.1 million American households utilize propane in some way.
This year, an exceptionally wet harvest has excited demand to the point where delivery drivers are unable to keep up. This prompted several states to enact Hours of Service Waivers to keep drivers on the road.
From a vaporous Model-T on an old mining road just after the turn of the 20th century to 15 billion gallons of annual consumption 100 years later, propane has become a staple fossil fuel. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, more propane will become available, but at the moment, more gas is burned off in remote oil fields than is collected due to the expense of pipng the gas to processing facilities. That is expected to change as in-field technologies may soon allow frackers to collect and separate propane and other petrochemicals outside of a refinery.
The global interest in propane gas is at an all time high and as engine technology and fueling infrastructure answers demand for clean burning fuels, CNG and LNG exports from shale reserves hold the promise of energy independence for the United States. Throughout its history, versatility and efficiency have marked propane's progress and with a shale revolution underway, the future of propane is bright. With a single, dusty pop of a cork on a bottle of gasoline in 1910, life in America was improved by such gadgets as water heaters, propane ranges, grain dryers and refrigeration, all thanks to clean burning propane.
Model-T photo credit: Harry Shipler / Foter.com / Public domain
Tanks photo credit: aaron.knox / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Storage tanks photo credit: Bob Jagendorf / Foter.com / CC BY
Tappan stove photo credit: artnoose / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
31st Naval Construction Batt. photo credit: David C. Foster / Foter.com / CC BY-ND