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Vol. 31 No. 1
January-February 2009

Stamps International |

See also www.iupac.org/publications/ci/indexes/stamps.html


Inverted Methane

Methane, the simplest hydrocarbon, is a colorless, odorless, and flammable gas widely distributed in nature. It is the main component of natural gas, which contains about 70–90% CH4, and it is found in large clathrate deposits underneath ocean floors. It is also formed on a regular basis by methanogenic bacteria present in wetlands and the guts of humans and ruminants. In addition to being the final product in the decay of organic matter, methane is a well-known greenhouse gas and thus plays a key role in the global carbon cycle.

The main use of methane is as a fuel, either for electricity generation in power plants or for domestic heating and cooking. In the chemical industry, methane is an essential feedstock in the production of the so-called synthesis gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) by steam reforming of natural gas. In turn, synthesis gas is the critical intermediate in the preparation of pure hydrogen, used in a huge industrial scale in the synthesis of ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process, and also in the production of methanol, which can be converted to acetic acid, formaldehyde, and many other important organic chemicals.

The stamp shown in this note was issued by Monaco in 1986 to recognize its fledgling plastics industry, a puzzling choice since the economy of the wealthy principality relies primarily on tourism and banking. More questionable is the stamp designer’s choice of methane as a direct source of gasoline for automobiles, as the illustration seems to suggest, although compressed (or liquefied) natural gas is a relatively common transportation fuel in countries such as Argentina and Brazil. Perhaps most aggravating to chemists is that the structural formula of methane is given as C4H: definitely an item for chemical philately’s “Hall of Shame”! Interestingly, the linear butadiynyl radical does exist and has been unequivocally identified by spectroscopic methods in interstellar space, but that’s not exactly what I would call a readily available alternative source of energy . . .

Written by Daniel Rabinovich <drabinov@uncc.edu>.


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