Posted on January 06, 2013

The big picture

Pierre Eugene Berthelot (pictured) may have sparked a controversy or two in the 19th century because of his views on abiosis – the state of non-viability – but his position that coal could be converted into an oil-like product went on to instigate new technologies so potent, they can fuel our future for decades to come.

That was 1869.

Today, our ability to transform solids and gases into liquids from the depths of fjords to wadis has opened new gateways of opportunity. As worldwide levels of readily available crude oil dip and new sources of gas – a cleaner and more efficient hydrocarbon – are explored, advancement in technology to steam gases into liquids could not have come at the right moment for an industry on the brink of fast-depleting conventional resources and a rising investment in alternative energy.

At the heart of this greatindustry success story lays the innovation by two German scientists, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch. Working at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Chemistry in Berlin in 1922, the duo developed the eponymous Fischer-Tropsch process, a series of chemical reactions that converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons.

Fischer and Tropsch went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1930.

Liquid potential

In 1935, the first industrial-scale production of coal to oil, in the UK, further cemented the potential of liquid technology, after British firm ICI successfully built a plant at Billingham, County Durham, known as the Oil Works.

However it wasn’t until the 1970s that companies that had previously eschewed coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid technologies as economically unviable began to reassess their stance. The backdrop was a series of oil-related crises, punctuated by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that together wrecked widespread economic havoc and global oil shortages.

The result was a renewed focus on GTL as many plants sprang up across countries from New Zealand to Malaysia to South Africa, some of which continue to provide a variety of fuel and derivatives to this day.

Leaders of GTL

When Qatar’s first GTL plant was commissioned in 2003, there were only three such facilities in the world using the Fischer-Tropsch process; two in South Africa, operated by Sasol, and one in Malaysia, powered by Shell. Sensing an opportunity, Qatar seized the prospect of creating a GTL economy-of-scale leading to widespread development of an astonishing degree, and in the process claiming the recognition of being the “GTL capital of the world”.

Spurring the initial momentum was the 2007 opening of the 32,400 barrels per day ORYX GTL plant in the RasLaffan Industrial City, north of Doha, with Qatar and Sasol behind the project.

Qatar’s commitment to strengthen the rapidly-developing industry saw state-owned Qatar Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell open their Pearl GTL facility in RasLaffan Industrial City in 2011.  Using Shell’s proprietary GTL technology, the facility is at least four times larger than its nearest rival with the capacity to produce 140,000 barrels per day of GTL products and 120,000 barrels per day oil equivalent of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), field condensate and ethane.

Wael Sawan, Managing Director of Qatar Shell, takes pride in what QP and Shell have accomplished together. “Pearl GTL is a world-class mega-project and partnership that demonstrates that GTL technology works on a large scale. Using proprietary processes built on 3,500 patents, last year’s successful ramp-up of Pearl GTL was a ground-breaking achievement representing the culmination of nearly 40 years of innovation. Bringing Qatar’s vision to life is proud moment for QP and Shell, and shows what we can deliver together.”


The way forward

The development of GTL in Qatar has had a double impact on the country, one in terms of generating revenues as exports, and secondly in the development of GTL technology, which is being sought out by the oil and gas industry, particularly countries looking to diversify ways of income from their energy reserves such as Russia, Australia, Indonesia, Libya, Algeria, the U.S. and Canada.

The GTL development in Qatar has further heralded new uses such as GTL jet fuel, a blend of conventional jet fuel and synthetic kerosene drawn from converting natural gas into liquid form.

The on-going research and continued improvement in technology further indicates that GTL will become the preferential fuel for organisations looking to minimise the negative effects of their operations on environments as part of their mission to be seen as environmental harbingers.

This focus on clean energy alone is reason enough why GTL is set to become the fuel of choice to energise the future. Whether most nations are ready to monetise gas’ ubiquitous benefits or why pouring of billions of dollars’ worth of investments in building new GTL plants is diversifying the industry is set to be discussed in depth when doors open to the world’s largest assembly of gas-to-liquid experts at the inaugural World GTL Congress this month in Doha.

Being held under the patronage of Qatar’s Minister of Energy and Industry, His Excellency Dr Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Sada, also the chairman and managing director of the state company Qatar Petroleum (QP), the three-day event from 13-15 January 2013 at the St. Regis Hotel, Doha, packs a rich agenda aimed at spurring the industry.

“The inaugural World GTL Congress, no doubt, will bring a new perspective to a rapidly-evolving industry. However, beyond the already rich agenda of the three-day congress, the gathering of some of the world’s leading GTL luminaries is expected to set a new direction for this promising industry of the future,” said Leila Masinaei Al Marzouqi, Divisional Director for Africa, Middle East, Central and South Asia at IQPC, the event’s organisers.

“As the sole marketer of petroleum products from Qatar, Tasweeq plays an important role in the value chain of marketing and selling GTL products, mainly Naphtha and Jet fuel. Tasweeq started marketing GTL Naphtha produced by Pearl and Oryx in 2011. Tasweeq will also market and sell GTL blended jet,’ stated Saad Al-Kuwari, CEO of Tasweeq.

Al-Kuwari added, “Whilst marketing these products,Tasweeq has earned the respect and interest that these products attract from customers over the world. This is obviously a result of the sheer hard workand dedication by organisations such as QP, Qatar Shell and Oryx GTL among others. We are proud to be the diamondsponsor of World GTL Congress in Qatar, making Doha yet again the pioneer in attracting and promoting clean energy to the world.”

Through cutting edge presentations followed by interactive panel discussions by industry leaders, the summit aims to analyse the lessons learned from current operational projects and the way forward in light of fuel price fluctuations and ever changing energy landscapes.  

But more than a coming together of assembly leaders, the World GTL Congress will highlight Qatar’s drive to pioneer the continued development of the GTL industry for producing cleaner and more environmentally-friendly products for the world. It will be another testament to how complementation, and not competition, is the way forward.