QATAR: As Qatar is a desert sheikdom with a notoriously high temperature that can reach as high as 45 degrees centigrade on a typical hot summer day, some 52,000 men and women scramble to their workplaces early in the morning to avoid the scorching heat to start their day.
That was a typical day during the peak period at the construction site of the world’s largest integrated Gas to Liquids (GTL) project at Pearl GTL last year.
Shell’s executive vice president and managing director of Pearl GTL Andy Brown said these men and women from 60 countries would normally work 60 hours a week to ensure that the project worth RM60 billion (US$20 billion) would be completed on schedule.
The mammoth project started in 2006 and was now at its final stage of completion.
And on March 23, this year, Pearl GTL created history when its first flow of dedicated offshore gas was finally processed at the giant Pearl GTL plant, located in Ras Laffan Industrial City, some 90 kms from Doha. Brown was optimistic that the project would be fully operational by middle of next year.
“When fully operational, Pearl GTL is expected to make some US$4 billion a year based on a US$70 per barrel, disclosed Brown to journalists at the Pearl GTL plant recently.
Some 20 journalists mostly from Europe were invited by Shell to visit the Pearl GTL plant from May 29 to June 1.
Beside The Edge Malaysia, The Borneo Post was the only media from this part of the world to be invited by Shell for the four-day tour.
However, looking at the sheer vastness of the project, I was wondering how I could connect this mammoth project to our readers back at home.
Then came the answer from Brown that Borneo Post had been invited because the people of Sarawak should be proud of themselves as the giant Pearl GTL project was made into a reality due vastly to the success of the GTL project in Bintulu.
Back then in 1986, Shell, Mitsubishi, Petronas and the Sarawak Government decided to commercialise the Shell GTL process in Bintulu, making it the first commercial GTL plant in the world.
The first GTL plant was commissioned in 1993, designed to produce 12,500 barrels per day of high quality GTL products including a wide range of specialties like pure waxes which could be processed into various products such as diesel, kerosene, paraffin, jet oil and lubricants.
Bintulu made its first shipment of GTL in September that year.
“Bintulu was the first plant of its kind and contained many new technologies and as anticipated it took several years to stabilise production but the core heavy paraffin synthesis and heavy paraffin conversion processes operated smoothly from the start,” said Brown.
But production at Bintulu plant was interrupted in 1997 by an explosion in the cryogenic Air Separation Unit. A subsequent investigation by Shell experts found that this was caused by high levels of air pollution from massive foist fires burning in South East Asia at the time, which got into the oxygen system through the filters.
Reconstruction was completed in 2000 and production resumed. Numerous improvements were made in the reconstruction, building on experience from the initial years. Performance of the plant quickly reached world-class operational reliability, where it remains today.
A de-bottlenecking was implemented in 2003, with relatively minor modifications to increase the production capacity to 14,500 barrels per day. In July 2004, Bintulu exported its thousandth shipment of GTL product.
“By 2001 Shell was convinced that it had the technology, operating experience and commercial knowledge to develop a world-scale GTL plant. We began a search for a government partner and the country with natural resources and vision to make this ambitious project a reality was Qatar, revealed Brown.
On full production, Pearl GTL will be able to produce some 1.6 billion cubic feet of gas per day from the North Field, which would be processed to generate 120, 000 barrels per day of condensate and natural gas liquids and 140, 000 barrels per day of GTL products.
Shell, which is the operator of the Pearl GTL plant, opened natural gas wells offshore some 60 kms away, allowing the gas to flow through a subsea pipeline into the GTL plant onshore.
Brown also explained that the first step in the GTL process, natural gas (methane) was converted into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which was known as syngas. The natural gas was partially oxidised in a non-catalytic reaction with 99.8 per cent pure oxygen.
“The reaction is then conducted at temperatures around 1300 degrees Celsius in a steel vessel clad with insulating material. The reaction has a high selectivity, meaning it achieved a greater than 95 per cent conversion of the carbon in methane to carbon on carbon monoxide. Waste heat is then used to make steam which is then used to power equipment,” explained Brown.
He said that sections of the mega plant would be started up progressively over the coming months. Presently there were some 30, 000 workers employed at the Pearl GTL plant.
“We also created a record safety result of 77 million man-hours of Lost Time Injury (LTI)-free in 2010, declared Brown.
Indeed the project would be able to meet the demand for green energy once it is fully operational next year.
Brown said Shell GTL’s potential markets included Europe, United States and Japan.
“This is especially true when countries such as Germany which has decided to stop its dependence on atomic power completely by 2022,” added Brown.
Qatar, has an estimated population of 300,000 people with an additional expatriate population of 1.2 million is a major gas resource holding country with over 900 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves in the North Field. Less than a quarter of these reserves were committed to the current project at Pearl GTL.
While the global demand for fossil fuel keeps rising causing fear that it would deplete in the very near future. Shell chief executive officer Peter Voser reckoned that oil reserves would last for another 50 to 80 years and gas would last for another 250 years.
“But with our current high level of technology, we are confident that we will be able to find new frontiers to tap these resources in the very near future, added Voser.