High pressure! The Swedish story behind disputed gas

HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. Since Vladimir Putin turned on the taps, European countries are trying to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas. Sweden uses quite a bit of natural gas today. But different energy gases have come and gone for 200 years.

Swedish natural gas imports had their origins in the 1970s, when the energy issue was even more charged than today. At the beginning of the decade, oil accounted for three quarters of Sweden’s total energy supply, and when the oil crisis came in 1973, the price of crude oil quadrupled in one year.

This meant an almost literal cold shower for the Swedish people – during a transition period rationing was introduced on fuel, district heating and hot water. The state Energy Savings Committee was formed and distributed sensible advice to the public: “Use the stove fan sparingly when it’s cold outside. It draws hot air out of the apartment!” and “The oven is the stove’s energy guzzler. Cook several dishes in succession, and bake more at once!”.

It was also realized that Sweden needed to broaden the energy sources, but how? In principle, hydropower was already developed to full capacity, and the nuclear power projects met with strong resistance. Against this background, natural gas became one of several interesting types of energy.

Natural gas is found in pockets in the earth’s crust and consists mostly of methane, which is formed when biomass is broken down and stored under pressure for millions of years. Denmark was sitting on natural gas deposits in the North Sea, and in 1980 the Swedish and Danish governments signed a cooperation agreement. Five years later, a pipeline was ready from Dragør to Helsingborg, and Sweden received its first delivery of natural gas.

Gas pipeline to the current Hisingen in Gothenburg is laid across the Göta river, June 1925. Photo: KAMERAREPORTAGE/TT

Since then, the network has been gradually expanded through southern and western Sweden, and just under 20 years ago the latest stage of today’s natural gas network was completed – the stretch to Bohuslän’s chemical industries, where the gas replaced large volumes of oil.

In Skåne, Halland, Västra Götaland and western Jönköping counties, natural gas accounts for around 20 percent of the energy mix. The gas is primarily used as process fuel and raw material in industry, but also for power and district heating production, vehicle fuel and for heating and cooking in households.

The gas soon found more uses in homes – for cooking, property heating and hot water – and eventually came to be renamed “city gas”. Photo: ANNA GERDÉN/TECHNICAL MUSEUM

Overall, however, natural gas accounts for a rather small part of Swedish energy needs. The approximately ten terawatt hours we consume on an annual basis corresponds to roughly 3 percent of our total energy supply. Normally, almost all natural gas that Sweden uses comes from the Tyra gas field off the coast of Jutland. But now the field’s facilities are undergoing renovation, which means that Sweden has to import gas from elsewhere.

This can be compared with Germany, where natural gas has become the second most important energy source after oil. In 2021, over half of German natural gas imports came from Russia. However, Sweden is also affected by Putin’s thumb on the gas valve, because the European energy markets are interconnected. During the coming winter, Swedish electricity prices are expected to rise by at least 15 percent.

Various energy gases have been used in Sweden since long before the oil crisis and natural gas imports. In 1822, Karlslund’s manor outside Örebro was the first in Sweden to install a gas plant that “boiled” gas from tar and pitch oil.

The self-produced lighting gas, as it was called, was drawn into the manor building via an iron pipe. Through wires in the walls and ceiling, it was led to chandeliers in the salons, and it was also used to illuminate two statues of Johan Tobias Sergel. Gradually, gas lighting was also introduced into the farmhand’s cabin, the night watchman’s office and the inspector’s office.

A couple of decades later, lysing gas began to be introduced in Swedish cities. In 1846, Gothenburg became the first in the country to have a larger gas plant, followed by Norrköping and Stockholm during the first years of the 1850s.

Gothenburg was the first in Sweden to have a larger gas plant, when The Gothenburg Gas Company built Scandinavia’s first city gas plant in Rosenlund in 1846. However, it is unclear which of the plants this picture shows. Photo: CAMERA REPORTAGE/TT

The gas was produced by pyrolysis (heating in an oxygen-poor environment) where the raw material decomposed without burning, while its volatile substances dissolved in gaseous form. Both wood and peat were used, but the larger gasworks preferred British imported hard coal. In this way, salable by-products were also obtained, above all coke, and coal tar, which was used for fuel in steam engines.

Some niche lighting gases also existed: “fat gas” of various gas preparation oils was used for lighting in railway carriages, while acetylene – produced by a reaction between calcium carbide and water, emitting an intense white light – suited well in lighthouses and beacons.

Through Gustaf Dalén’s work, acetylene would lay the foundation for the Swedish industrial gas giant AGA (originally Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator). But it was also an exploding acetylene tube that would cost Gustaf Dalén his sight in 1912, two weeks before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In the cities, gas networks were built where the main pipes were made of cast iron, while secondary and indoor pipes were made of wrought iron. For the street lighting, “self-ignitors” were installed, which relied on the gasworks sending a temporary increase in pressure through the pipe network, which opened a valve between the gas inlet and the burner so that the gas ignited. The extinguishing was also managed with a centrally controlled pressure wave.

An employee at the Stockholm gasworks works with a gas lantern at Norra Bantorget in central Stockholm at the beginning of the 20th century. In the cities, the main pipelines of the gas networks were made of cast iron, while subsidiary and indoor pipelines were built of wrought iron. Photo: STOCKHOLM CITY ARCHIVES

Gas meters, a kind of bellows with fixed walls and movable membranes, were installed in the houses. The gas flowing in caused the bellows to alternately expand and compress in a piston movement, which was transmitted to a dial where the amount of gas passed through was measured.

The early gaslights often had slit or hole burners, where the gas flowed out through a narrow slit or through a round hole. Gradually, these were replaced by lamps where the heat of combustion was used to preheat both gas and air, which gave a better lighting effect.

Soon the gas got more uses, and over time it was renamed “city gas”. In homes, it was increasingly used for cooking, hot water and property heating as gas stoves, gas heaters and other appliances became popular. Industry also began to use city gas, for example in gas engines and in furnaces for melting and hardening.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the traditional gas lamps began to be displaced by the gas incandescent light or “glow stocking”, which came to dominate street lighting in Swedish cities right up until the 1940s. An asbestos-reinforced cotton fabric was impregnated with the elements cerium and thorium, and when it was then heated by the gas flame, it emitted a powerful glow. By converting heat energy into light in this way, a higher efficiency was obtained than when the light came from the combustion itself, since the gas flame itself is barely visible.

During the gasoline shortage that prevailed during the Second World War, natural gas received a boost. Towards the end of 1940, there were 22,000 CNG cars registered in Sweden. The practice car with a gas engine is pictured at Polhemsplatsen in Gothenburg in the same year. Photo: CAMERA REPORTAGE/TT

World War II gasoline shortages led to a boom in gas, which was produced by pyrolysis of charcoal or wood in gas generators. The carbon monoxide formed during pyrolysis can be led to a car engine where the final combustion to carbon dioxide takes place in the cylinders. Now, natural gas became extremely important as an alternative vehicle fuel.

In November 1940, there were 22,000 registered gas cars in Sweden. A year later they were over 70,000, and the market was quickly flooded with CNG generators. At most there were over 500 different models to choose from, of higher or lower quality. Inferior aggregates produced impure gas, which tore hard at the engines.

The rampant demand for wood attracted shady figures to make money from substandard fuel, and in 1941 the State Fuel Commission decided to regulate the business. In order to be called “car wood”, the raw material must be free of sawdust, sticks and bark, the moisture content must not exceed 25 percent, and the wood must be declared with type of wood and sorting.

Due to the high working temperatures of the gas generators, it was also decided that the cars must carry fire extinguishers. Even the toxic carbon monoxide was dangerous – fatal accidents occurred, and many professional drivers suffered chronic nerve damage.

The workshop for adjusting gas meters at the Gas Agency in Västerås, Technical Works. Photo: ERNST BLOM/VÄSTMANLANDS LENS MUSEUM

After the war, coal gas was forced out. Industry began to use gas oil, extracted from crude oil, and in the 60s many Swedish gas plants were converted to produce city gas from light petrol. A major advantage of this so-called split gas was that it contained much less toxic carbon monoxide than coal gas.

At most, there were 37 gasworks around Sweden. But from the second half of the 20th century, city gas has been steadily out-competed by electricity, and by district heating from burning wood chips, household waste and other things. Today there are city gas networks only in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Landskrona and Helsingborg. All are fed with a mixture of natural gas and biogas.

But in the era of the climate threat, biogas has emerged as an interesting, “green” alternative. It mainly consists of methane and carbon dioxide and is produced by the digestion of manure, sewage sludge, biological household waste and other biological material.

The then Prime Minister Göran Persson (S) visits a biogas plant in Linköping. On the right, Svensk Biogas’ then CEO Carl Lilliehöök. Photo: PONTUS LUNDAHL/TT

Biogas can be used in cogeneration plants for the production of both electricity and heat, and can be burned in district heating plants. After purification to at least 97 percent methane, it can also be used as vehicle fuel.

Six years ago, biogas was fed for the first time into the southwestern Swedish gas network, which began to be built in 1985. The gas is produced from manure and agricultural residues at the Jordberga biogas plant in Skåne. And last year, Halland’s Vessige Biogas was started, a farmer-owned economic association, which is the country’s first biogas plant that was built connected to the main grid from the start.

As a subscriber to Teknikhistoria, you can also read the story of the stubborn engineer who launched the light gas. Read more in the online archive!

Source: Nyteknik – Senaste nytt by www.nyteknik.se.

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