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Energy Efficiency

A 3-Way Deal To Use Wasted Energy In Natural Gas Distribution

Methane, commonly known as “natural gas,” can be sold in a number of different forms.

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, in the United States, most natural gas is considered a fossil fuel since it originates from heat and pressure on organic materials over millions of years.

However, renewable natural gas (RNG), also known as biomethane, is a type of vehicle fuel that can be transported through pipelines. It comes from purified biogas, which anaerobic digestion of organic waste creates — such as rotting food in landfills or livestock manure — or thermochemical processes like gasification. RNG meets the requirements to be categorized as an advanced biofuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Regardless of whether it’s coming from the ground or coming from renewable processes, methane can be stored, moved, and used in two forms: compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG).

CNG is produced by compressing natural gas to less than 1% of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure. This is what we typically receive in homes with a natural gas connection, and it can even be used to power vehicles through combustion, like gas or diesel.

LNG is natural gas that has been chilled and turned into liquid form. It goes through a process called liquefaction, during which natural gas is cooled below its boiling point. This removes most of the compounds found in fuel, leaving behind mainly methane with small amounts of other hydrocarbons.

The really cool thing (other than its temperature) about LNG is that it takes up 600 times less space per unit of energy compared to CNG. This allows it to be transported, often by ship, to places that pipelines normally couldn’t reach (such as across oceans).

To transport large volumes of liquefied natural gas (LNG), carriers use double-hulled ships for both safety and insulation purposes. Once the ship arrives at its destination, LNG is off-loaded into well insulated storage tanks. Later, it is regasified so that it can be transported through a pipeline distribution network.

Avoiding Energy Waste Moving Gas

Fundamentally, lowering natural gas’s temperature is a process of removing energy from the gas, which limits the motion of the molecules. When making LNG from CNG, this is done until it’s a liquid instead of a gas. Removing energy, whether at gas regulating stations or for LNG processes, means that in many cases energy gets wasted (as waste heat in many cases).

In some ways, pressure regulation is like friction brakes in a car. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted into other forms. Friction brakes convert a vehicle’s kinetic energy into heat, slowing the vehicle down, but wasting that energy. Adding regenerative brakes to a hybrid or electric car makes big efficiency differences, because a portion of the energy gets put into the battery to be used again, instead of just sending the energy away into the atmosphere.

Sapphire Technologies tries to do the same thing with gas pipelines, recovering excess pressure energy and converting it into electricity instead of generating heat or other waste energy.

Turboexpanders can generate electricity in other gas systems, too (such as hydrogen).

A 3-Way Deal Powers Data Centers From Waste Pressure Energy

Sapphire partnered with Tallgrass Energy to install over 72 turboexpander systems in the US over the next 3 years as part of a nationwide clean energy project. Evolve Energy is also partnering with the firms to develop a process control system for turboexpanders that can adjust to the variable temperatures, pressures, and flow rates found throughout natural gas pipelines.

Evolve will offer integration services for Tallgrass while the clean power generated by Sapphire’s turboexpanders is used in Evolve’s data centers. With this being said, this installation consists of Sapphire Technologies’ largest deployment of turboexpander systems throughout the United States thus far.

Unique technology from Sapphire Technologies called the FreeSpin In-line Turboexpander will help Tallgrass rapidly get to its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emission. The reason they were selected is because it’s a low expenditure type of clean energy option that doesn’t have high operating costs.

“This exciting partnership provides us an opportunity to tap into the US market using our turboexpander technology with Tallgrass Energy,” said Freddie Sarhan, CEO at Sapphire Technologies. “Our partnership with this industry leader will help them decarbonize while deploying clean energy solutions across the United States.”

The turboexpander project is allegedly the largest supply agreement for turboexpanders sold into the midstream sector, which shines a light on the ongoing adoption of clean energy technologies in the US.

“Evolve is excited for this opportunity to work with Sapphire Technologies and Tallgrass, where we can utilize our experience to power data centers utilizing clean energy,” said Tye Johnson, CEO at Evolve. “We hope to continue partnering with companies that prioritize clean energy projects by deploying new and exceptional technology.”

Why This Matters

Ideally, we wouldn’t be moving methane around in pipelines. In the long run, we have to move to other energy sources that don’t have an overall bad impact on the environment. But, we can’t do that literally overnight. Many people (myself included) currently rely on natural gas for power generation (my local grid is about 75% natural gas generation), heat (I’m getting rid of my furnace next year), and many other applications.

While we’re using these pipelines, we need to use them as cleanly as we can. More efficient natural gas plants, more efficient regulating stations, and more efficient ways of performing every other aspect of natural gas are needed. We don’t want to be stuck with natural gas forever, but we need to make it as clean as we can between now and when we stop using it for good.

In this context, it makes a lot of sense to use energy that’s currently being wasted in today’s gas system. Solutions like Sapphire’s aren’t meant to be a forever solution to climate change, but they’re a smart way to put the brakes on it a bit until we can do other things to help.

Featured image: A screenshot from Sapphire’s video, embedded above.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things:


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