What Is Butane Fuel?

By Natasha Gilani
Butane gas is sold in containers.
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Butane is a gaseous fuel derived from petroleum. It is used primarily for camping, backyard cooking and in cigarette lighters. Butane is blended with propane and commercially sold as LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas. LPG fuel is used in vehicles and heating appliances. Butane exists in two forms: n-butane and isobutene. N-butane is technically butane fuel (where the n stands for normal).

Production

Butane fuel is produced by the fractional distillation of crude oils. Crude oils are fossil fuels--meaning they are derived from naturally decaying organic matter. Fractional distillation is the process in which a substance/mixture is separated into its fractions, or components. Crude oil is distillate to produce various fuels besides butane, including petrol, kerosene, bitumen, diesel oil and naphtha.

Properties

Butane (chemical formula C4H10) is a highly flammable, odorless, colorless hydrocarbon (a hydrocarbon is a compound of hydrogen and carbon). It is easily liquefied and burns in the presence of oxygen to form carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. N-butane boils at 31 degrees Fahrenheit and does not vaporize effectively below freezing point.

Composition

Commercially sold butane fuel is comprised primarily of n-butane (68.59 percent), isobutene (29.39 percent) propane (1.48 percent) and nitrogen (0.55 percent).

Uses

Normal butane fuel is used in the manufacture of organic chemicals, as fuel for portable stoves and cigarette lighters, to make high-octane liquid fuels and synthetic rubber and in the manufacture of ethylene.

Advantages

Butane fuel is available in portable canisters and can be used virtually anywhere. According to “Camping and Backpacking with Children,” butane burns quickly and immediately reaches maximum heat output.

Disadvantages

Butane fuel is a poor cold weather fuel and ineffective in colder climates. Butane canisters are made of metal and tend to be heavy.

Health Concerns

Butane inhalation can cause asphyxia, narcosis, drowsiness and cardiac arrhythmia. Burning butane gas produces nitrogen dioxide, a highly toxic gas. It causes asphyxiation when released in a confined area. High concentrations of butane lead to nervous system depression. Skin contact may cause frostbite, symptoms of which include itching, prickling and numbness in the affected area(s). Severe frostbite causes blistering, gangrene and tissue death. Liquefied butane gas in contact with the eyes can lead to permanent eye damage.