We've been hearing a lot about the use of natural gas in vehicles, either in compressed or liquefied form. But Shell is ramping up production on a plant that turns natural gas directly into a diesel-type fuel and lubricants.
Shell Pearl gas-to-liquid plant in Qatar will turn natural gas into a fuel that can be used in diesel engines.
Shell Pearl gas-to-liquid plant in Qatar will turn natural gas into a fuel that can be used in diesel engines.

Shell has teamed up with Qatar Petroleum to build the world's largest gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar, a stunning investment of nearly $19 billion. This summer, the Pearl facility produced its first barrels of gas-derived diesel, using a Shell proprietary process it has used at a smaller GTL plant in Malaysia since 1993. Shell has more than 3,500 patents at all stages of the process.

The Pearl GTL facility was a huge project. At the peak of construction more than 52,000 people worked on it. Around 2 million tonnes of equipment and materials were imported to the site, and workers installed enough steel and pipes to make 2.5 Eiffel Towers every month.

The complex plant is like a giant chemistry set that will first combine, then break up and rearrange chains of atoms. Chains of different lengths have different properties, making a range of GTL products.

The plant will produce cleaner-burning diesel and aviation fuel, oils for advanced lubricants, and naphtha used to make plastics and paraffin for detergents. It will produce 140,000 barrels of GTL products each day as well as 120,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day of natural gas liquids and ethane, used for industrial processes.

Diesel and lubes

For the trucking industry, probably the most important is GTL Gasoil, a diesel-type fuel that will help diversify the supply of diesel fuels and can help cut local emissions. It can be blended easily with conventional, oil-based diesel and used in the existing diesel distribution system. Shell has already blended some GTL Gasoil from its plant in Bintulu, Malaysia, into the Shell V-Power Diesel we sell to customers at more than 5,000 sites in Europe and Thailand.

Following ramp up, Pearl GTL will produce approximately 50,000 barrels of GTL gasoil per day. Most of the GTL gasoil produced at Pearl GTL will be used as a high-quality blend component with conventional oil-based diesel and supplied through the existing diesel distribution system across the world.

GTL Gasoil burns with lower sulfur dioxide, lower nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions than conventional oil-based diesel. This means that if used at higher concentrations it can help improve local air quality. Trials in heavily congested cities such as London, Berlin, Tokyo and Shanghai have shown that buses, taxis and trucks running on high concentrations of GTL gasoil can contribute to improved local air quality.

GTL Gasoil can also be used by refineries to upgrade heavier fuel products, because it has a lower density and higher cetane number than conventional diesel.

Another product you may see is GTL base oils, which can be used for the manufacture of lubricants that keep engines, gearboxes and transmissions operating smoothly. Following ramp-up, the Pearl GTL project will be one of the world's largest sources of lubricant base oil with the capacity to produce about 30,000 barrels per day.

Pearl GTL will process around 3 billion barrels of oil equivalent over its lifetime from the world's largest single gas field, the North Field in the Arabian Gulf. The field stretches from Qatar's coast and contains more than 900 trillion cubic feet of gas, equivalent to 150 billion barrels of oil, or over 10% of worldwide gas resources.