Fuel Gases and their Environmental Effects

Q: I just found a butane torch that advertised itself as being “ozone friendly”. Does that mean it’s better for the environment than other butane torches, or better than any other fuel gasses, like propane?

A: The “ozone friendly” claim is interesting. Does that mean it likes Ozone? Hmm. Maybe it means it doesn’t produce ozone as a combustion product. OK, but neither does burning any other of our usual fuel gasses, actually. Does it mean that it’s not producing fluorocarbon type gasses like Freon or other fluorocarbons that harm the ozone layer? Again, neither do other fuel gasses. Probably they mean their brand of butane cans is pressurized with something that contains no fluorocarbons, which harm the ozone layer. Okay, now that’s cool. But that’s just their brand of butane canisters, and has nothing to do with the torch itself. And I’d not be surprised if the other major manufacturers of butane canisters are also fluorocarbon-free, the same as almost all spray can products on the market these days. So while the “ozone friendly” claim is likely true as far as their canisters are concerned, I’d guess it’s mostly marketing hype, rather than any actual feature not found in competing products. A can of butane does not need much in the way of additives to pressurize the can, since the gas produces pressure on its own. I could be wrong, and perhaps some brands use fluorocarbons to pressurize their cans, but I doubt it. My guess is that the ozone friendly claim is a lot like selling pencils on the basis that they are wireless, cordless and don’t need batteries.

As to other environmental aspects of butane as a fuel, it’s more serious. All hydrocarbon fuel gasses produce, if properly burned, two main combustion products. One is H2O, or water; the other is CO2, carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas. If it’s producing less CO2, then it’s producing even more toxic CO, carbon monoxide, or simply releasing some hydrocarbon gas unburned into the atmosphere, which is an even worse for the greenhouse effect than emitting CO2.

As to differences in fuel gases, butane and propane are both generally produced as byproducts of refining either natural gas or petroleum. Neither is totally “natural”, and natural gas itself is also not in any significant way more environmentally friendly than other hydrocarbon gases, except that because it’s coming straight from the ground, less energy is expended in coming up with the final product, so there’s less pollution from manufacturing the stuff. But natural gas is just as much a greenhouse gas as any other hydrocarbon gas, up to and including the gasoline vapors that escape when you fill your car’s gas tank, or the natural methane released by fermentation of wood by termites, or the intestinally produced methane from the world’s cows (who generally fart much more prodigiously than some of the guys in our office due to the fact that their digestion is based literally on fermentation of their food).

The only fuel gas I know of which is not a greenhouse gas in this way is pure hydrogen, since its only combustion product is pure water. But of course, producing hydrogen generally is done by electrolysis of water, and that means using electricity, and unless you’re getting that juice from a solar panel or wind farm, or perhaps a nuclear plant, you’re right back to creating at least some pollution, and likely greenhouse gasses of some sort, somewhere. The amounts may vary, certainly, and hydrogen’s clean burning is why it’s considerably more desirable as far as its greenhouse effects go, than, say, gasoline in automobiles. But perfect? Nope.

As to that torch, it’s designed for browning crème brûlée. For that it’s ideal (though for me, it seems pricey). For your other environmental concerns, it’s got no advantage, at least not based on its fuel gas choice. And butane, despite the impressive claims of that ad, actually burns cooler than most other fuels we use, so a soldering torch burning butane will have a harder time getting your metal hot enough to solder than will a torch using natural gas, propane (slightly hotter), Mapp (even hotter still), acetylene (hotter yet again), or hydrogen (hottest, if burned pure, so often “cooled” with vapor fluxing units using organic solvents like acetone or methanol).

If you really want environmentally friendly soldering and heating, get a large fresnel lens, build a solar furnace, and use focused sunlight. Rather hard to control, but actually possible. As a kid I got such a kit from Edmund scientific, and that foot square lens, on a bright sunny day, could easily melt a small bit of brass on a charcoal briquette…I never tried soldering that way, but presumably it could be done. Not much good for night-owl jewelers, though…

The truth of the matter is that much of what we do is a long way from being even close to environmentally friendly, and it’s probably fair to say that most of us are guilty of using products or materials that are causing harm of some sort, somewhere, even if we never see it or are aware of it..Our metals, to begin with, are often obtained via mining methods that produce disgracefully damaging effects on the environment. See the article about this in Metalsmith magazine, titled I think, “The Price of Gold”. One of the more interesting presentations at a recent SNAG conference was a panel presentation on this very subject by, among others, Ethical Goldsmiths, the authors of that article. Sobering indeed, and without obvious easy answers if we still wish to use precious (or other) metals.

It’s important for all of us to educate ourselves on environmental issues, and learn to lead the way for our industry, and our society, in responsible use of resources, and responsible residency on this planet. But I’d suggest that reading marketing claims for products is probably a poor way to start that education.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.