Taking gas-to-liquid technology to the next level
In the 1920s, two German scientists—Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch—developed revolutionary chemical reactions that could transform gas into liquid. These reactions proved particularly valuable to natural gas-based fuel processing. Since the Fischer-Tropsch days, engineers around the world have been working on ways to tweak these gas-to-liquid (GTL) reactions to produce more products, more efficiently and with less environmental impact. An international research team headquartered at Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) is making remarkable progress along these lines.
“Qatar is the most attractive place to a scientist wanting to make a difference,” said Dr. Nimir Elbashir, assistant professor at TAMUQ and a researcher with more than 15 years of experience at the leading edge of R&D related to fuel processing and petrochemicals. “For researchers in this field, QNRF has opened the door to build international network collaborations and at the same time has provided facilities to make a difference with industrial collaborators.”
Dr. Elbashir’s team—involving researchers from Qatar University, Texas A&M University, College Station, University of Cambridge (CU) and Auburn University—has targeted three key GTL research areas. The first involves a tight focus on the exact molecular actions at play during Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis (FTS) reactions and how different environmental factors impact the process. This information is then applied to the second area of research, test model systems, wherein models are built and tested for their ability to produce different liquid products under different conditions.
The third focus emphasizes fuel products and formulating them to be as effective as traditional crude oil relatives with a reduced environmental impact. Funded by Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), it entails a unique collaboration between academia—TAMUQ, University of Sheffield, UK, and DLR, a German Aerospace Institute—and industry leaders Shell and Rolls Royce.
Referring to the US$950 million Sasol-Qatar Petroleum GTL plant in Qatar and Shell’s largest GTL plant in the world—known as The Pearl GTL in Qatar—Dr. Elbashir said that Qatar was an obvious choice for his research base.
Dr. Elbashir’s team is working to isolate and combine the strongest aspects of the technologies used at Sasol and Shell into one technology. To be sure his team is on the right track, he assembled an advisory board on both technologies, with members from Shell, Sasol, Exxon Mobil and Qatar Gas.
“This project involves a unique network and is not just about me,” Dr. Elbashir said. “I can design a reactor but someone else has to optimize this design, and someone else has to develop a control setup for this design while another person has to understand how such thermodynamic behavior has to happen. So you can see, it requires experts in different areas and these people are at the top of their field.
“At the same time, to make the research applied, we rely on the industry experts to tell us whether we are going in the right direction and if what we’re doing is relevant to the design of future technology.”
One important potential result of this research is the impact it will make on smaller fuel companies and the market at large.
“Right now, only the major corporations around the world can invest in the gas to liquid technologies because it’s quite expensive,” he said. “Companies like Shell are the only ones who can afford to invest US$20 billion in this technology. This greatly limits the participation of the small to middle sized companies. Our objective is to advance the technology and provide a unit that can be manipulated to produce specific products and that is useful for mid-sized companies.”
On this project alone, Dr. Elbashir’s team has published eight peer-reviewed articles and eight conference papers. They’ve also presented research findings at over two dozen international engineering conferences.
But the best is yet to come, he said. Through a recent NPRP award—running through 2014—Dr. Elbashir, in partnership with CU, will be conducting studies to visualize the molecular processes of GTL using MRI and NMR technologies.
“We’ll be moving one step ahead of any research ever done in this field,” Dr. Elbashir said. “We’re planning to investigate the in situ behavior of the reaction in a way that nobody has ever done before. We’ve been making a lot of assumptions about the fundamentals of GTL, but still we have not visualized any of it. This is all happening at a micro-scale and it’s happening very fast.
“I’m confident in the team we have built and if we are successful, we may answer questions that span beyond emissions, and we may help refine the assumptions made in hundreds of papers written in the past—nobody has ever really seen the GTL process at the molecular level, and we may soon see exactly how it happens!”
Innovative projects like these would be difficult, if not impossible, to move forward without QNRF, Dr. Elbashir said. “For someone like me, in applied research, this is an amazing opportunity.”