07 March 2012

A New Era of Hydrocarbon Fuels: Gas to Liquids & Coal to Liquids

Unconventional liquid fuels are slated to provide ever growing proportions of future demand for transportation fuels. The burgeoning success of plants such as Shell's Pearl GTL plant in Qatar herald a new era of liquid fuels production.
In terms of what GTL is, it is the process of chemically turning natural gas into cleaner-burning liquid products, including fuel, base oil for lubricants and feedstock for chemicals. To produce, the process firstly involves methane and oxygen which are converted into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide known as synthesis gas or syngas. This is then fed to a reactor with a proprietary Shell catalyst that accelerates the conversion of the mixture to long-chained waxy hydrocarbons and water.

From the GTL reactor, the long-chained hydrocarbons are then reacted with hydrogen and ‘cracked,’ into a range of smaller molecules of various sizes using another proprietary Shell catalyst. This process is referred to as ‘hydrocracking.’ The final step is distillation. Various boiling points are reached to separate out the products, which can be in the form of GTL naphtha, GTL kerosene, GTL normal paraffins, GTL gas oil, or GTL base oils. These are then eventually fed to their own storage tanks ready for use.

...One of the products, GTL gasoil (diesel-type fuel), can contribute significantly to the diversification of the diesel fuel supply. This product can reduce local emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides and particulate matter. Because it contains virtually no sulfur or aromatic compounds and has a high cetane number – a measure of combustion quality – GTL gasoil burns more efficiently than conventional oil-based diesel and thus produces fewer local emissions and less black smoke than conventional diesel. The high cetane of GTL gasoil can lead to noise reductions in certain engines under certain driving conditions and improve cold start performance. GTL gasoil can also be blended with conventional diesel and/or biodiesel and used in the same vehicles and infrastructure, thus offering a low investment cost compared with other alternatives.

GTL Kerosene is an alternative to conventional oil-based kerosene. Its primary use is expected for aviation. GTL kerosene can be used as a blend with traditional jet fuel without any modifications to existing aircraft and engines. Given that the aviation sector will rely on liquid hydrocarbons for decades, this fuel can help support the future energy needs of the industry, and offer customers fuel diversification. GTL kerosene has higher energy density than conventional oil-based kerosene and this reduces the required fuel payload, thus aircraft may be required to carry less fuel weight to cover the same distance. _QatarShell
When even pro-nuclear activists such as Rod Adams are speaking out in favour of a coal - nuclear partnership to produce liquid transportation fuels, you should understand that people are finally beginning to look at the possibilities.
Coal is a valuable resource that can be safely mined for centuries by well-trained and compensated miners. Instead of eliminating the use of coal, I would prefer to help coal miners and coal mine owners to recognize that they could make more money and sell a cleaner product if they upgraded their fuel at the mine rather than shipping a dirt-filled, unrefined product that sells for a huge discount in the energy market.

...My pitch to the coal industry would be to use cheap, clean nuclear heat to convert H2O and their carbon rich fuel into a refined hydrocarbon that could compete with petroleum products.

...Shipping oil instead of coal from our domestic mines would also be very beneficial to the US national security and to the prosperity of the world. Just think about the positive impact that substantially lower US demand would have on the price of diesel fuel delivered to a developing country. _RodAdams
Until more people are able to think of energy in multi-disciplinary, multi-industrial terms, societies will be forced to pay higher prices for fuels and energy than is necessary. By including cheap and unlimited nuclear reactor process heat into the fuel production mix, we can immediately bring CTL, GTL, bitumens to liquids, kerogens to liquids, and even biomass to liquids (BTL) into the feasible and profitable arena.
Fortunately, more nuclear advocates are beginning to understand the importance of cleanly integrating coal and gas into the overall energy and fuels mix. But we need more bright chemical engineers like Robert Rapier, and physicists like Tom Murphy, to crunch the numbers once again -- this time including the powerful impact of high temperature process heat from modular and mini-modular HT gas-cooled nuclear reactors.
By utilising scalable, factory produced reactors which can be sited at the point of production of gas, coal, bitumens, kerogens, methane hydrates -- and even biomass in some situations of intensive cultivation -- it should be clear to any objective observer that a new era of hydrocarbon production is quite feasible.

Government action could certainly prevent this development. The great carbon hysteria delusion -- if firmly enacted into law in the developed world -- would not only kill unconventional fuels, it would kill the economic viability of the underlying societies themselves. That is what several governments, from the UK to Obama's US to Australia to the EU are attempting to do in various ways.

A far less likely -- but still potentially effective -- way to stop the revolution in unconventional fuels, is for the national oil companies of OPEC and other oil dictatorships to route needed funds into oil field production, exploration, discovery, and development. It would be easy for existing oil fields and fields under development to ramp up production to overwhelm even the current inflated levels of global demand -- if the equipment, manpower, and funding were allotted for the purpose. But this will not be done, because governments from Russia to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia etc need oil prices to remain artificially high so that they can use oil profits to pacify unstable populations and pay off highly placed insiders.

Previously published on Al Fin Energy

Extra bonus just for loyal Al Fin readers: China apparently has vast shale gas reserves. China is vigorously pursuing the development of these gas reserves.

In the early phases this will help the North American engineers and drilling companies who assist in China's learning curve for shale gas production. It will also help China negotiate more favourable gas prices with Russia's Gazprom.

In the long run, these huge natural gas reserves will help reduce China's oversize demand for imported crude oil. This down-shifting of global oil demand will occur due to China's increasing use of an up and coming coal -- natural gas hybrid liquefaction process. This process of synthetic fuels production should become particularly economical when using cheap nuclear process heat as the primary heat source.

Russia itself will be forced to adopt GTL technologies as it finds some of its best customers turning to their own shale gas reserves, and turning away from Gazprom.

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