GTL ’13: Executive insight into new gas-to-liquids technologies

By Adrienne Blume
Managing Editor

HOUSTON -- Gulf Publishing Company's inaugural Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) Technology Forum and exhibit took place from July 30–31. Speakers and attendees shared knowledge on gas processing technology developments, project economics and business challenges, with a focus on GTL processing technologies. The event, which featured five technical sessions and two keynote speakers, was sponsored by Honeywell and drew over 160 attendees representing 96 companies from 10 countries.

Networking lunches and refreshment breaks in the Forum's exhibit space allowed delegates to discuss business strategies over coffee and desserts, and learn more about the technology and data management solutions offered by conference exhibitors Pentair, Forum Energy Technologies, AMACS and Construction Boxscore Database. A complete recap of the 2013 GTL event can be read below:

DAY 1.
The Forum opened on Tuesday, July 30, with a keynote speech by Mark Schnell (see photo), the general manager of marketing, strategy, and new business development for Sasol, on the role of GTL in the new North American energy landscape. Mr. Schnell called it an "exciting time to be in the North American gas business" for those on the demand side of the equation. He addressed three major topics, including Sasol's progress on its GTL plant in Louisiana, the company's experience on its GTL journey, and where GTL might fit into the energy landscape going forward.

Sasol's proposed GTL complex in Lake Charles would have a capacity of 96 thousand barrels per day (Mbpd) and be co-located next to an existing ethylene cracker. GTL startup is presently targeted for 2019, although the final investment decision in 2014 will be based largely on economics. During a conference break, Mr. Schnell told Hydrocarbon Processing that he expects as many as 6 or 7, and at least 4 to 5, of the proposed ethylene cracker projects in the US to move forward. The Sasol GTL plant would produce GTL diesel, naphtha, specialty paraffins, waxes and lubricant base oils, making it the first facility in the US to manufacture GTL transportation fuels and other products.

Mr. Schnell also addressed some of the challenges of the evolving GTL sector, noting that, at present, "Commercial capacity is in the hands of a few companies." The addition of more players would offer improved security of supply, greater advocacy for alternative fuel policies and more security for original equipment manufacturers. "To be truly taken seriously, [GTL] will have to become an industry, rather than a handful of clients or players," Mr. Schnell acknowledged. "It's up to us as business and technology providers to step up and provide solutions."

Session 1.
The first session opened with a presentation by Srinivasan Ambatipati of R3 Sciences on the development of modular technology for gas-to-methanol conversion. Mr. Ambatipati emphasized the need to utilize flared gas, which totaled 5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) worldwide in 2011. R3 Sciences' gas-to-methanol (G2M) technology uses a three-step process, involving authothermal reforming and synthesis gas (syngas) conditioning, to produce methanol.

Next, Dr. Ronald Sills of the XTL & DME Institute presented his view on the use of dimethyl ether (DME) as a transportation fuel in North America. Dr. Sills named the three major fuel applications of DME as LPG blendstock, power generation and transportation fuel. On this last point, he noted that Volvo is the first vehicle manufacturer to announce plans to commercialize DME-powered heavy-duty trucks in North America, which will happen as early as 2015. "DME is safe, inexpensive to store, simple to transport and does not require cryogenic or high-pressure storage," Dr. Sills acknowledged. Although DME is cheaper than diesel, offering compelling economics, the large-scale production of DME will be needed to encourage the availability of DME-compatible vehicles, he said.

Dr. Carl Hahn from Pentair then spoke about reducing capital and operating expenditures (CAPEX and OPEX, respectively) through more effective separation technologies. Dr. Hahn outlined the major challenges to the commercial viability of GTL as high capital intensity, high investment risk and cashflow constraints. Conventional separation technology can cause operational problems in GTL plants, although Pentair offers its Polarex technology as an extractive separation technology that can be used in lieu of a conventional contactor.

Nearing the end of the first session was a presentation on small-scale GTL as an economic solution for distributed gas by Dr. Paul Schubert, CEO of Velocys. Dr. Schubert acknowledged a growing set of small- to medium-scale prospects, with five small-scale GTL technology clients progressing to the engineering stage since the start of 2013, along with 19 companies in the pre-engineering stage. Potential applications for small-scale GTL in North America include gas flaring, diversification for midstream companies and refinery integration. From there, Anindita Moitra of Indian Oil Corp. finished off the session with a presentation on off-balance sheet project risk management.

Session 2.
After a lunch and dessert break that generated numerous networking opportunities for attendees, the second session kicked off with an insightful talk by Tara Fatima of Bechtel Hydrocarbon Technology Solutions Inc. on low-cost opportunities for methanol-to-olefins (MTO) and methanol-to-propylene (MTP). Ms. Fatima acknowledged that MTO technologies are competitive with traditional steam cracking only when there is a reasonable price spread between gas and oil (i.e., $4/MMBtu or less for gas, and $80–$90/bbl or more for crude oil). This makes MTO and MTP technologies largely uneconomical in the US, but viable in the Middle East.

Next, V. K. Arora of Kinetics Process Improvements Inc. gave a talk on the advances and challenges of syngas preparation. Mr. Arora reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of major syngas technologies, including steam methane reforming, autothermal reforming, partial oxidation, convective reforming, two-step reforming and prereforming. In addition, he discussed the major hurdles for GTL operations in North America, specifically those concerning process complexity, process efficiency, economic challenges and longer financing requirements.

Session 3.
ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co.'s Mitch Hindman led off the third session with a presentation on ExxonMobil's methanol-to-gasoline (MTG) technology as an alternative for liquid fuel production. The technology, which is a fixed-bed process that produces sulfur-free gasoline with 92-RON octane, was first commercialized in 1985 in New Zealand. There are currently seven licenses for MTG technology around the world, according to Mr. Hindman.

A panel discussion followed that included Honeywell's Randy Miller, Invensys' Bill Poe, Emerson Process Management's Chuck Miller, and Aspen Technology's Michael Harmse. The panelists discussed various aspects of process control challenges for GTL, including the link between process control and operator competency, online modeling for GTL applications, process and safety requirements with regard to automation systems, cyber security concerns, the benefits of standardization of small-scale plants, and the need for dynamic simulation and remote monitoring technologies to ensure proper operation of control systems.

The second day of the GTL Technology Forum began with a keynote address by Iain Baxter, the director of business development at CompactGTL in the UK. Mr. Baxter spoke about transformational gas solutions for the upstream industry and the problems inherent in conventional GTL operations. He noted that there are only a handful of companies with the experience and technology expertise to design large-scale GTL plants. These companies tend to be large, integrated energy firms and are often protective of their intellectual property.

However, CompactGTL's compact reforming technology for syngas generation provides fully modular GTL production in a range of design capacities, from 10 MMscfd to 150 MMscfd. The company is presently working with Petrobras, Total, Gazprom and 17 other companies around the world for small-scale GTL projects, both onshore and offshore.

Session 4.
The fourth session kicked off with a discussion by Dr. Uday Turaga of ADI Analytics LLC on benchmarking gas monetization opportunities. Dr. Turaga explained that, in North America, LNG export projects offer the most attractive returns, followed by MTG and GTL projects. He also emphasized the need for creative thinking during the commercial structuring of a GTL project to reduce CAPEX and OPEX.

Lee Nichols, the director of Hydrocarbon Processing's Construction Boxscore database, followed by offering a recap of the global construction outlook for GTL projects. Mr. Nichols noted that Construction Boxscore is tracking over 800 gas processing projects globally.

Afterward, Daniel Barnett of BD Energy Systems LLC discussed reformer furnace outlet systems and needed improvements to conventional steam methane reformer furnaces. Mr. Barnett noted that conventional practices apply a design temperature of 50°F for outlook system components, which is not adequate for GTL or ammonia plant reforming. The final speaker of the session was Dr. Dave Sams of Albemarle Corp., who explained how Albemarle's MA-15 catalyst aids in the thermochemical conversion of syngas to ethanol.

Session 5.
The fifth and final session of the conference opened with a discussion by Dr. George Boyajian of Primus Green Energy (see photo) on the cost-effectiveness of Primus' STG+ GTL technology, which enables the conversion of natural gas to drop-in liquid fuels on a small scale. Robert Hermann of Robert P. Herrmann LP next discussed the use of a gas lift apparatus for a Fischer-Tropsch production riser.

Following these presentations, John Oyen of ABB Inc. spoke about next-generation facilities, with emphases on trends in automation and improvements in control room technology, and how these developments can enhance operations at GTL facilities. Mr. Oyen said operating and maintenance personnel aging out and the problem of replacing them requires new methodologies in electrical and process control (high degree of integration and the use of procedural control ISA106) as well as tight integration with Asset Information Management and CMMS systems.

Lastly, Steve Worley of Worley Engineers Inc. discussed the design requirements for floating vessels intended for offshore GTL production. Mr. Worley advised the use of a proven floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO)-style vessel, or an alternative proven design, to minimize sea motion at floating GTL (FGTL) projects.

John Royall, CEO and Gulf Publishing Company (see photo below), concluded the conference by thanking attendees for their participation and input. "We anticipate some major market changes by the time [the conference is held next year]," especially in compact and small-scale GTL technologies, Mr. Royall said.

Gulf Publishing Company's second annual GTL Technology Forum will be held in Houston in 2014.


Photo 1: Sasol's Mark Schnell opened the GTL Technology Forum on Day 1 with a keynote speech on the role of GTL in North America.

Photo 2: Dr. George Boyajian of Primus Green Energy discussed the cost-effectiveness of Primus' STG+ small-scale GTL technology on Day 2.

Photo 3: John Royall (left), CEO of Gulf Publishing Company, and keynote speaker Mark Schnell (right), general manager of marketing, strategy, and new business development for Sasol.

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