Propane is one of a group of liquefied petroleum gases (generally known as LP gases) that includes butane, propylene, butadiene, butylene, and isobutylene. Propane today is commonly used as a fuel for barbecues (developed in the 1950s), portable stoves, residential central heating, oxy-gas torches, and engines. Propane is a popular fuel source for rural Americans, campers (including recreational vehicle users), and backyard barbecue aficionados.
The history of propane dates back to 1887 when Benjamin T. Crew published “A Practical Treatise on Petroleum” in which he made reference to the manufacture of liquefied petroleum gas. In 1890, pintesch gas was introduced into the United States from Europe. This was not a liquefied gas, but a compressed gas made by cracking oil. It was a bottled gas which was used in railway car lighting.
In 1903-1904, blangas, developed by Herman Blan in Germany, became the first bottled liquid gas. Manufacturing costs, however, were expensive. Installation of the special equipment to use the gas placed it out of the reach of all but the wealthy. In the United States, nine companies were formed to make and mark blangas, including Northwestern Blangas of St. Paul, Minnesota.
In 1910, Dr. Walter O. Snelling of the U.S. Bureau of Mines identified propane as a volatile component in gasoline. Working with Frank P. Peterson, Chester Kerr and Arthur Kerr, Snelling developed a commercially feasible method of producing a liquefied petroleum gas. To produce the new product, they established American Gasol Co. which became the first commercial marketer of propane.
On April 1, 1912, the New York Times reported:
Camping out parties and bungalow residents can now have a lighting plant of their own. Dr. Walter O. Snelling, consulting chemist of the Bureau of Mines and of the Panama Canal Commission, now doing laboratory work in the testing station here, has developed a liquid gas, and a steel bottle will carry enough to light an ordinary house for three weeks or a month.In 1913, Snelling sold his patent for propane to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum, for $50,000.
During the 1920s, the production of propane increased and reached a production of 1 million gallons (US) in 1927. In the 1930s, railroad tank car transport was introduced which greatly expanded the market potential for propane. Also during the 1930s, local bottle-filling plants became common. By 1945, sales reached a billion gallons.
The production of propane is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. One of the problems with this type of production is that the supply of propane cannot be adjusted when there is an increased demand. In the U.S., 90% of the propane is produced domestically and about 7% is imported from Canada.
In North America, it is stored in salt caverns including Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Mont Belvieu, Texas, and Conway, Kansas. From these storage facilities, propane can be shipped by pipelines, truck, ship, barge, or rail. Because it can be transported easily, it is a popular fuel for homes in rural areas, such as Indian reservations.
Natural gas pipelines have generally avoided Indian reservations, so the major options for heating and cooking on the reservations are wood, electric, and propane. Electricity is too expensive as a heating option on most northern reservations, and so many reservation Indians rely on propane. During severe winters, the high cost of propane can be a serious burden for many reservations families.