Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Roads to Fuels, Thanks to Over-Hyped Crude Oil Prices

For the US, the huge and growing alternative to crude oil is Canada's oil sands. New mines and refineries are being installed in Canada, and new pipelines are being built to deliver the product to US refineries and customers. Many of the environmental concerns over oil sands development are being answered by evolving new technologies.

More: Suncor and Total are teaming up to accelerate oil sands development

Another promising approach to liquid fuels is gas-to-liquids (GTL). The new Pearl GTL plant in Qatar is beginning preliminary operation.
Making syngas. In the gasifier at around 2,200-2,650°F (1,400-1,600°C) methane and oxygen from an air separation plant are converted into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide known as synthesis gas, or syngas. The reaction produces heat, which is recovered to produce steam for power.

Making liquid waxy hydrocarbons. The synthesis gas enters one of 24 reactors. Each reactor holds a large number of tubes containing a Shell proprietary cobalt synthesis catalyst. The catalyst serves to speed up the chemical reaction in which the synthesis gas is converted into long-chained waxy hydrocarbons and water.

The total surface area of the microscopic holes in the catalyst granules is more than eighteen times the surface area of Qatar. Placed end-to-end the tubes would stretch from Qatar to Japan. The synthesis process generates heat, which is also used to produce steam that in turn powers the GTL plant via steam turbines. All water in the GTL process is purified and reused in the utilities system of the plant to generate steam.

Shell’s catalyst company, CRI/Criterion, spent around four years using dedicated facilities in Europe in full-time production to provide the thousands of tonnes of catalysts needed for the start of production at Pearl GTL.

Making GTL (gas to liquids) products. Using another Shell proprietary catalyst, the long hydrocarbon molecules from the GTL reactor are contacted with hydrogen and cut (cracked) into a range of smaller molecules of different length and shape. Distillation separates out the products with different boiling points. _GCC

Other emerging alternatives to crude oil made more economically viable by artificially boosted oil prices also includes the coming wave of advanced biofuels: both cellulosic and algal. The cellulosic-derived fuels will require large volumes of biomass, such as designed tree farms or advanced grasses and seaweeds might deliver. Although the energy density of biomass is less than that of oil, gas, or coal, nature just keeps producing year after year. Many locations which are ideal for growing biomass do not have readily available fossil fuels.

Other alternatives include the processing of kerogens to liquids -- oil shale refining, coal to liquids, and waste to liquids. The technology for all of those approaches is improving thanks to investment spurred by high oil prices.

Continue to look into these possibilities, if you want to understand why -- at least on the supply side -- all the glib predictions of $200 a barrel oil in 2011 might have been self-serving. As for the demand side, things are bleak in the US under Obama, and conditions in Europe and China are not much better. Japan has a lot of re-building to do and will need more hydrocarbons to replace the loss of power production from nuclear plants, at least in the short to intermediate term. But Japan's population is shrinking rapidly, and long term demand from Japan can only decline.

Don't get so caught up in peak oil hysteria (and carbon hysteria) that you forget to breathe.

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