Propane gas has become a popular choice for barbecues and portable stoves because its low boiling point makes it vaporize as soon as it is released from its pressurized container. Propane powers buses, forklifts, taxis, outboard boat motors, and ice resurfacing machines and is used for heat and cooking in recreational vehicles and campers. Propane is also used in some locomotive diesel engines to improve combustion.
Propane is produced as a by-product of two other processes, natural gas processing and petroleum refining. The processing of natural gas involves removal of butane, propane, and large amounts of ethane from the raw gas, in order to prevent condensation of these volatiles in natural gas pipelines. Additionally, oil refineries produce some propane as a by-product of cracking petroleum into gasoline or heating oil.
Since it can be transported easily, it is a popular fuel for home heat and backup electrical generation in sparsely populated areas that do not have natural gas pipelines. Many heavy-duty highway trucks use propane as a boost, where it is added through the turbocharger, to mix with diesel fuel droplets. Propane droplets' very high hydrogen content helps the diesel fuel to burn hotter and therefore more completely. This provides more torque, more horsepower, and a cleaner exhaust for the trucks. It is normal for a 7-liter medium-duty diesel truck engine to increase fuel economy by 20 to 33 percent when a propane boost system is used. It is cheaper because propane is much cheaper than diesel fuel. The longer distance a cross country trucker can travel on a full load of combined diesel and propane fuel means they can maintain federal hours of work rules with two fewer fuel stops in a cross country trip. Truckers, tractor pulling competitions, and farmers have been using a propane boost system for over forty years in North America.
Propane is generally stored and transported in steel cylinders as a liquid with a vapor space above the liquid. The vapor pressure in the cylinder is a function of temperature. When gaseous propane is drawn at a high rate, the latent heat of vaporization required to create the gas will cause the bottle to cool. (This is why water often condenses on the sides of the bottle and then freezes). Since lightweight, high-octane propane vaporize before the heavier, low-octane propane, the ignition properties change as the cylinder empties. For these reasons, the liquid is often withdrawn using a dip tube.
Typically in the United States and Canada, LPG is primarily propane (at least 90%), while the rest is mostly ethane, propylene, butane, and odorants including ethyl mercaptan. This is the HD-5 standard, (Heavy Duty-5% maximum allowable propylene content, and no more than 5% butanes and ethane) defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials by its Standard 1835 for internal combustion engines. Not all products labeled "LPG" conform to this standard, however. In Mexico, for example, gas labeled "LPG" may consist of 60% propane and 40% butane. "The exact proportion of this combination varies by country, depending on international prices, on the availability of components and, especially, on the climatic conditions that favor LPG with higher butane content in warmer regions and propane in cold areas".
In North America, local delivery trucks with an average cylinder size of 3,000 US gallons (11,000 L), fill up large cylinders that are permanently installed on the property, or other service trucks exchange empty cylinders of propane with filled cylinders. Large tractor-trailer trucks, with an average cylinder size of 10,000 US gallons (38,000 L), transport propane from the pipeline or refinery to the local bulk plant. The bobtail and transport are not unique to the North American market, though the practice is not as common elsewhere, and the vehicles are generally called tankers. In many countries, propane is delivered to consumers via small or medium-sized individual cylinders, while empty cylinders are removed for refilling at a central location.
Propane is also being used increasingly for vehicle fuels. In the U.S., over 190,000 on-road vehicles use propane, and over 450,000 forklifts use it for power. It is the third most popular vehicle fuel in the world, behind gasoline and Diesel fuel. In other parts of the world, propane used in vehicles is known as autogas. In 2007, approximately 13 million vehicles worldwide use autogas.
Propane is denser than air. If a leak in a propane fuel system occurs, the gas will have a tendency to sink into any enclosed area and thus poses a risk of explosion and fire. The typical scenario is a leaking cylinder stored in a basement; the propane leak drifts across the floor to the pilot light on the furnace or water heater, and results in an explosion or fire. This property makes propane generally unsuitable as a fuel for boats.