Royal Dutch Shell and Qatar
Petroleum recently announced that they shipped the first fuel from their
flagship $19 billion Pearl gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Qatar, an Arab emirate
on the Persian Gulf. The plant is producing 140,000 barrels per day of diesel
from the world’s largest natural gas field. And South Africa-based Sasol has
announced plan to build a $10 million GTL plant in Louisiana, the nation’s
These commitments demonstrate the
large-scale viability of GTL technology as a means of meeting our voracious
demand for liquid transportation fuels and cutting our $1 billion a day
addiction to foreign oil. But although these efforts are remarkable, GTL
technology need not require a commitment in the billions.
The United States has some of the
world’s largest reserves of natural gas, a fuel that, in addition to being
abundant, is clean and affordable. Until now, the nation has not felt the
economic pressure to pursue GTL technologies because of the fact that gasoline
has been cheap and plentiful. But with oil prices continuing to climb and
natural gas prices on the decline, GTL is becoming an ever more attractive
The fuels produced through GTL
processes also have the benefit of being “drop-in” substitutes for gasoline and
other transportation fuels, such as diesel and jet fuel, meaning that, unlike
competitors such as biofuels or compressed natural gas (CNG), they require no
costly engine modifications, overhauls to the fuel delivery infrastructure or
changes in consumer behavior.
One concern about transforming
natural gas to gasoline through GTL technologies is the potential environmental
and safety problems posed by hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as
“fracking,” a means of increasing extraction rates from shale beds. But the
nation’s reserves of natural gas are so vast that they are large enough to meet
our fuel needs through GTL technologies without having to resort to fracking.
Another concern is expense.
Traditional GTL technologies, such as that being used in Qatar, are expensive
because they use a lot of energy. But Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Carbon
Sciences has developed a process that is not only cheaper, but greener as well
because in addition to natural gas, it also uses CO2 — an ingredient in
harmful greenhouse gases — as a feedstock.
The breakthrough process used by
Carbon Sciences, called dry reforming of methane, relies on an inexpensive
catalyst to effect the transformation of natural gas and CO2 into
transportation fuels. Although GTL technology was originally developed in the
1920s (the Nazis used it during World War II), it has not been widely employed
because it requires expensive catalysts.
The Carbon Sciences catalyst, which
has been undergoing rigorous commercial testing, is about to break out of the
lab. We project that gasoline from our technology will be competitive with
crude oil at $80 a barrel, and since crude is now trading at about $100 a
barrel (with forecasts predicting a price of $115 in a year) potential
strategic partners are demonstrating a lot of interest in our technology.
Moreover, because our technology is
more affordable, it can be used in small- and medium-sized gas fields, not just
the giant gas fields targeted by the big players such as Shell and Sasol.
The Pearl facility is the biggest
energy project ever launched by the desert sheikdom of Qatar, and will be the
world’s largest GTL facility when it reaches full production in mid-2012. If
Qatar can economically turn natural gas into transportation fuels, so can the
United States. Moreover, we can do Qatar one better by producing transportation
fuels through a process that is cleaner, safer and more affordable.
America’s much-vaunted ingenuity has
been the hallmark of our economic progress since the birth of the nation. Now
it is time to take a tip from Qatar and focus our ingenuity on our most
pressing economic problem: the need to cut our $1 billion-a-day dependence on
foreign oil by developing a domestic source of fuel to power our cars, trucks,
buses and planes.
And we needn’t stop there: with GTL
technologies, we could even become, like Qatar, an exporter of transportation
By Byron Elton, CEO, Carbon