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Another Technological Piece of the Energy Puzzle


Recent news of huge increases in Natural Gas proven reserves (due largely to the new technology of "fracking") are game changers when it comes to the overall energy picture.  Natural Gas is an obvious choice to replace oil and coal in the production of electricity.  What natural gas does not do, in the current state of deployed technology, is replace Gasoline and Diesel (for automobiles, ships, and trains), Kerosene (for aircraft), and lubricants which are derived from crude oil via distillation.

That too may have just changed.

Arabian Alchemy: Shell makes black gold in Qatar

By Charlie Martin, PJM's Tatler

...

In a June 4th story, Michael Persson reports that the first product is coming from the Shell-Qatari joint project a half-hour out of Doha. The project is called "Pearl" and its function is to transform natural gas into synthetic replacements for petroleum products. In other words, turning natural gas into oil.

Conceptually the process is simple. Natural crude oil is a mix of a variety of hydrocarbons, which of course are simply molecules made of hydrogen and carbon. (This is distinct from carbohydrates like sugar, which also include oxygen.) A lot of the hydrocarbons in crude oil are long chains -- they have many carbon atoms joined together. When crude oil is refined, the refinery basically does two things: first, it separates out any naturally-occurring shorter chains, which includes things like pentane, hexane, heptane, and octane. We call a misture of those things (and some other stuff, this is a bit oversimplified) "gasoline." This isn't sufficient to provide as much gasoline as we'd like, so a catalytic process is used to convert other fractions into the right components for gasoline. Natural crude usually contains some other compounds, like sulfur compounds. When you hear the TV business people talk about "sweet crude", they mean crude with relatively little sulfer. "Sour" crude, naturally, has more sulfur. The sulfur compounds have some commercial uses, but they present processing problems, so "sour" crude is less desirable" than "sweet" crude.

The effect is that long-chain hydrocarbons are broken down into shorter chains; this process naturally releases some energy, so it's "downhill".

What Shell is doing, through a process called GTL ("gas to liquid", aren't scientists just poets?) is running a refinery backwards. Natural gas is primarily methane, the simplest hydrocarbon; the GTL process pushes it back up the hill to form longer hydrocarbon chains. This process consumes some energy, so it's a little bit counter-intuitive why you'd want to do such a thing, but there are some real advantages. First off, natural gas is hard to handle -- you can't run a pipeline across the Pacific, and storing it in tankers means either storing it under very great pressure, or cooling it to very low temperatures to make it a liquid.


Think about that for a few minutes (then click through and read the whole thing).

This process converts one of the energy sources with which the United States is very well supplied into a much more easily transported and used form.

The United States sits on so much natural gas that we often burn it off as unwanted in the process of oil production.  The ability to economically (~$20.00/bbl, less than a quarter the cost of light sweet crude) convert that gas into the longer chained hydrocarbons that we need holds the prospect of not only making the United States totally energy independent, but of also making the U. S.  (once again) a net exporter of Energy to a world thirsty for Energy.



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Comments (24)

obama's friends are already... (Below threshold)
jim m:

obama's friends are already militating to stop an oil pipeline that would bring Canadian oil from their oil sands here. There is no reason to expect that this will be any different. Expect a law or an executive order hat will make getting oil in this manner effectively illegal.

obama and the greens will never be happy until they have closed off every possible avenue for energy production other than wind and solar.

obama and the greens wil... (Below threshold)
Evil Otto:

obama and the greens will never be happy until they have closed off every possible avenue for energy production other than wind and solar.

Don't you mean INCLUDING wind and solar, Jim? Even those supposed greenest of energy sources draw protests from environmental nutjobs.

What the greens truly desire is total control over every aspect of human existence. They can't have that if we're energy independent, so every new potential source of energy will be attacked.

Don't you mean INCLUDING... (Below threshold)
jim m:

Don't you mean INCLUDING wind and solar,

Fair enough. Perhaps that's why the left feels such an affinity toward radical islam. Both want to return to the 7th century.

The Obamanistas will NEVER ... (Below threshold)
Justrand:

The Obamanistas will NEVER permit us to become energy independent...they WANT us dependent!

Their goal is a pre-Industrial Age America...not one that is once again free to compete on the world stage.

I wish I was kidding.

Their goal is a pre-Indu... (Below threshold)
jim m:

Their goal is a pre-Industrial Age America...not one that is once again free to compete on the world stage.

It's worse than that. Pre-industrial America was still rich in natural resources. They want to bottle all that up too.

If they had their way they would turn back agricultural methods back to the 18th century in order to prove Thomas Malthus right.

But what they really want is impossible. They want all the benefits of the modern age but without any of the things that make it possible.

I believe the environmental... (Below threshold)
Imhotep:

I believe the environmentalists have stated that "fracking" MAY contaminate the water supply, so we can kiss this entire project good bye here in the US. But, in other countries that are must less controlled/terrorized by environmental groups, this process has potential.
With that in mind, Shell should continue to pursue GTL because the ability to create oil at $20/barrel will force OPEC to compete at $20/barrel........possibly lower.

I can hear the chant from t... (Below threshold)
recovered liberal democrat:

I can hear the chant from the democrats and the liberal/statist run media..Romney..Romney..Romney..Romney...

"fracking" is not a new pro... (Below threshold)
Chris scott:

"fracking" is not a new process. I've ben in the oil and gas industry for 14 years and we have been doing it long before I started. "fracturing," the formation is done by pumping very high pressure into the producing zone to create new channels for the hydrocarbons to escape. There have ben concerns that the frac oil used could end up migrating into ground water because of the high pursue. At 1000-3000m, that's a very long way to go. Ground water is from 30-300m. We can now frac using water-poly fluids and even propane. Both those options have a much less likely and a lower environmental impact. By the way I have fraced hundteds of wells and never seen or heard of any ground water contamination.

Chris,Doesn't "fra... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Chris,

Doesn't "fracking" refer specifically to the hydraulic (water-poly fluids) which are being increasingly used?

I also seem to recall that this is all serendipitous outgrowth of earlier well injection schemes intended to extend the lives of nearly spent wells...

Good post. I would disagree... (Below threshold)
Don L :

Good post. I would disagree with you on Joe Lieberman. He was a fence ssitting handwringer who has a few moderately conservative positions (but not principles)Once he was tapped as GOres VP he dropped them like a flash. 'Long after Gore's loss, Liberman (an orthodox-but, pro-abortion Jew) aggreed with just about all moves to contain the Islamic war against all thing Israeli. To be for the war against terror - Joe was punished by his party -saved by CT folks like myself (bad move -the alternative was even worse)
He has and will change his plastic principles at the drop of a hat (except for Israel)

Hmm ... if the fracking may... (Below threshold)
James H:

Hmm ... if the fracking may contaminate groundwater, then put in place measures to keep that from happening. And then let's frack like Starbuck and Apollo.

Another thought. I've foll... (Below threshold)
James H:

Another thought. I've followed this off and on, and as I understand it, there's a lot of natural gas under China, too. Which, IMO, is a good thing. If we're not competing with China for energy resources, that's one less thing in the world to worry about.

As to another component of ... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

As to another component of the discussion - Just a little over half of petroleum is refined into gasoline. There are an estimated 10,000+ other products that use other fractions of the distillate. These include plastics and pharmaceuticals amongst others. There is a miniscule amount of waste in the refining process. What there is is burned off. If we are concentrating on reducing the use of gasoline by substitution then we either have to burn off the gasoline excess or decrease consumption of the other 10,000 products.

I have an idea, though. We could take all those obsolete gasoline fueled engines, put them in a field and use them to burn off the gas!

Ray,If we use LTG ... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Ray,

If we use LTG to produce the bulk of the Kerosene, Gasoline, and Diesel we require, conventional reserves of crude oil go even further in producing the other distillates we need for the products you mention.

James H,Ayup.... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

James H,

Ayup.

Rodney, you are saying that... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

Rodney, you are saying that this reverse distillation can economically connect the short chain molecules so there isn't excess waste product?

Roy,Not sure about... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Roy,

Not sure about waste products (if any). The link states that the GTL product is very rich (higher than Light Sweet Crude) in the fractions used to produce Diesel, Kerosene, and Gasoline, and that it does require energy input. Then again, at $20.00/bbl, with higher output of the most sought after distillates, what's not to love about it?

Rodney,I am certai... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

Rodney,

I am certainly not an expert in petroleum engineering so please don't interpret my comments as assertions. Not that you have. Just to clarify.

It seems to me that if this were a viable process we would have to build an infrastructure somewhat comparable to our current refineries. Seems like maybe big bucks for some vague concepts - energy "independence", peak oil and AGW.

Roy

Roy writes @ 18:<bloc... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Roy writes @ 18:

I am certainly not an expert in petroleum engineering so please don't interpret my comments as assertions. Not that you have. Just to clarify.

Nor I on both the technical expertise and the assertion fronts.

It seems to me that if this were a viable process we would have to build an infrastructure somewhat comparable to our current refineries.

As I read the article, you are indeed correct. We would have to build the GTL plants within pipeline range of the gas fields. However, moving the product of those GTL plants would seem to be susceptible to current POL transportation. We would also have to adjust refineries to deal with the GTL input to produce the distillates (Diesel, Gasoline, Kerosene) that we need.

Note:

In a June 4th story, Michael Persson reports that the first product is coming from the Shell-Qatari joint project a half-hour out of Doha. The project is called "Pearl" and its function is to transform natural gas into synthetic replacements for petroleum products.

And the current pilot production indicates the process is price competitive at $20.00/bbl, which is 20% of current price for crude.

Rodney,I will prof... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

Rodney,

I will profess a bit of knowledge in the scaling problems in these situations. A number of years ago I was engaged by Henkel of Germany. Not the knife guys. This Henkel was selling reagents to leach copper from mine tailings. It had become profitable to reprocess the mountains of tailings left over from the original smelting.

Let's just say it's rather complex and I don't pretend to understand the processes. I was hired to refine a computer system that projected the results of small scale experiments to production scale so that it reduced the number of keystrokes and saved the results of prior simulations.

I did, however, spend a lot of time talking to the chief engineer about the inner nature of the business. It is on this experience that I don't place much credence on publicists' statements about economic viability.

Roy

Roy,Agreed that sc... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Roy,

Agreed that scaling can, and often is, a stone cold bitch. It's not clear to me from the article if it's the engineers or the publicists speaking to the reporter. It does seem to me that this is NOT a small scale effort, but rather an industrial scale proof of concept. As such the scaling issue should have been addressed at this stage.

Still early days, but the prospects are complete game changers.

Rodney,I couldn't ... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

Rodney,

I couldn't agree more. You brought to my attention a new technology that nobody else seems to have noticed. I guess I maybe got side tracked into nitpickery.

Thank you. And maybe I should lay of the gin a bit.

Roy

Roy,No worries.</p... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:

Roy,

No worries.

God and the Devil both live in the details.

And I'll not criticize your gin if you forgive my Cognac.

Rodney,Ah, cognac.... (Below threshold)
Roy Lofquist:

Rodney,

Ah, cognac. Once upon a time, before I ended up in a trailer park in deepest darkest Florida, I lost a bet to the proprietor of a quite nice restaurant. He bet me $100 I couldn't tell him which was the $6 a glass Armagnac and the $200 a glass. I lost the bet but made sure to drink both. We were next door neighbors and I got comped most times. Friends are good.

Love ya,
Roy




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