Pearl GTL: building the world’s largest gas to liquids plant
The drive is on to make tomorrow’s transport fuels and lubricants on a large scale from clean-burning natural gas. Construction of the world’s largest gas to liquids (GTL) plant, Pearl GTL in Qatar, is a major step towards meeting the world’s growing demand for cleaner energy.
The plant, a joint development by Qatar Petroleum and Shell, will process about three billion barrels-of-oil-equivalent over its lifetime from the world’s largest single non-associated gas field, the North Field, which stretches from Qatar’s coast out into the Gulf. The North Field contains more than 900 trillion cubic feet of gas, about 15% of world wide gas resources.*
Pearl GTL will produce cleaner-burning diesel and kerosene, base oils for top-tier lubricants, a chemical feedstock called naphtha, which is used to make plastics, and normal paraffin, which is used to produce detergents.
It will produce enough fuel to fill over 160,000 cars a day and enough synthetic base oil each year to make lubricants for more than 225 million cars.
The construction of Pearl continues apace at Ras Laffan, a vast industrial zone the size of Amsterdam on Qatar’s coast, some 90 kilometres north of Doha. More than 40,000 workers from more than 50 nations currently work on a building site almost the size of New York’s Central Park, making it one of the world’s largest industrial developments.
Two million tonnes of prefabricated parts for the GTL plant and equipment, including 12,200 kilometres of cables and enough steel to make 10 Eiffel towers, are on their way from five continents. About half has already arrived from places as far away as Japan and the UK.
A gigantic crane is currently lowering steel GTL reactors - at 1,200 tonnes each is as heavy as seven jumbo jets - on to concrete bases in the heart of the plant. Twelve of the 24 cylinder-shaped reactors central to making GTL products have been installed so far. Some are built in Germany. Barges ferry the giant reactors, each containing hundreds of kilometres of pipes along the Rhine to the Dutch port of Rotterdam. From there, they are shipped to Qatar.
Drilling under way
Sixty kilometres offshore, preparations to produce the raw gas from the North Field are well under way. Two platforms sitting in water up to 40 metres deep will feed gas to the plant. The steel structures, or jackets, to support the platform are already in place on the seabed. The upper sections of the production platforms, or topsides, are being built in shipyards in Dubai. When complete, barges will take them out into Gulf where a crane will lift them on to the platform legs. Raw gas will flow to Pearl GTL from these two platforms. Eleven wells are currently being drilled per platform, with record drilling times achieved for the field.
Two underwater 30-inch-diameter pipelines will carry the raw gas to Ras Laffan. Once it arrives onshore, a traditional gas separation plant will extract ethane, LPG and condensates. The ethane will be used locally for the chemical industry to produce ethylene, used to make everyday items like plastic bags. The LPG is generally used for heating and cooking and the condensates as refinery feedstock. The process will also remove contaminants like metals and sulphur. The sulphur will be extracted from the gas, turned into pellets, and shipped to the nearest market where it can be used to make hydrosulphuric acid, fertilizer, or turned into other valuable products.
Turning gas into liquid fuel
What remains is a clean gas (methane) which will then flow to the GTL section of the plant, where it will be converted in a three-stage process into a range of gas to liquids products using Shell proprietary technology. First, the methane reacts with oxygen to create synthesis gas in reactors operating at up to 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 Fahrenheit). Then, the synthesis gas is converted into liquid waxy hydrocarbons in the Fischer-Tropsch process.
Finally, the liquid waxy hydrocarbons are upgraded using specially developed technology involving novel catalysts into a wide range of products, including transport fuels, base oils and feedstocks for the chemical industry.
The oxygen for the process will be made in the world’s largest industrial oxygen separation plant, consisting of eight oxygen separators, each as tall as a 20-storey building. Four of the eight are already in place. They will suck in air, liquefy it by chilling it to -180 degrees Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), then separate oxygen from nitrogen and generate over 20,000 tonnes of oxygen a day.
“It will be an engineering marvel, and will provide cleaner fuels and products for customers right across the world for many decades,” says Shell’s Country Chairman in Qatar, Andy Brown. “The North Field has about 15% of the world’s gas resources, so this plant has a very long term future, and our children and our children’s children will benefit from it.”
Producing water in the desert
Pearl GTL sits in the desert, where summer temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and rainfall is slight. Conserving water is therefore critical. Pearl was designed to be self-sufficient in terms of water use. The gas to liquids conversion process produces one barrel of water for every barrel-of-oil-equivalent produced when the hydrogen in the natural gas reacts with oxygen. All the water produced will be treated in a plant that has a capacity to treat 300,000 barrels of water a day, enough to supply a town of one million people. Most of the water will be used and re-used in the GTL plant, and some for irrigation on the building site.
Boosting output ten-fold
Shell engineers are building on more than 30 years of experience, including building the world’s first commercial-scale GTL plant in Bintulu, Malaysia in 1993. Pearl’s output of GTL products will be 10 times bigger. The new plant’s reactors are closely modelled on Shell’s tried and tested equipment at the Bintulu plant located in Malaysia. That reduces scale-up risk and provides operational flexibility, for instance to carry out maintenance without having to interrupt all production.
Pearl is a fully integrated project spanning production from an offshore gas field to finished marketable products.
*source: Oil & Gas Journal
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