Volta discovers methane

Among the major figures in Italy, a fundamental role was played by Alessandro Volta, an Italian chemist, physicist and engineer, also known worldwide for the extraordinary discovery of methane, as well as for the invention of the first electric generator and for the battery.

The discovery of methane occurred in a way that could be defined as accidental. It was January 31, 1776 when the young Volta discovered that the air of the marshes near Angera on Lake Maggiore was flammable. This first idea of ​​what methane could be, at first called “gas of the marshes”, led him to deepen the matter with studies and research that concentrated on the so called flammable areas.

The curiosity that led him to observe the river stemmed from the fact that long before a dear friend of his, Carlo Giuseppe Campi, had told him of a bizarre fact that had happened in those waters.

In fact, on the course of the river blue flames that illuminated the waters had often been noticed. Volta, intrigued by his friend’s story, immediately went to the spot.

When he reached it, he tried to move the muddy bottom and noticed the rising of small gas bubbles on the surface. He gathered them up inside some bottles to study them in the laboratory. From the beginning he understood that this substance was nothing more than the decomposing material of animal and vegetable origin and that it can ignite with lightning or with a flame.

Apart from Angera, he noticed a similar phenomenon in 1780 in Pietramala, between Bologna and Florence and a year later also in Velleia on the hills of Piacenza.

The gas discovered by Alessandro Volta was nothing more than methane, fossil fuel belonging to the hydrocarbon family, chemical compounds consisting of hydrogen and carbon.

Alessandro Volta’s studies made it possible to discover that methane is the result of the decomposition of some organic substances in the absence of oxygen. In fact, in most cases methane is obtained by extraction from its underground deposits, where it is often combined with other hydrocarbons, which are precisely the result of decomposition of organic substances buried deep in prehistoric times.

Precisely for this reason methane is present in most cases in oil fields, even if there are huge deposits of only methane. This particular fuel derives from the mother rocks, from which it is possible to gradually extract, through the autogenous cracking that occurs in depth of the kerogen, many other hydrocarbons, from solids such as bitumen, to liquids, such as petroleum, up to the gaseous, like methane itself.

In fact, during the oil extraction, methane rises to the surface, on average in equal quantities to oil. However, when the oil fields are found in open sea, or in places far from those of consumption, it is almost impossible to recover that methane.

This in fact will be burned at the exit of the wells without being used in any way.

Another curiosity about methane is that about two thirds of the extracted gas is not used, due to the excessive cost of transporting natural gas in pipelines. There is talk of a figure that is four times higher than that of oil, since the density of gas is much lower.


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