Qatar Airways has become the world's first airline to power a commercial passenger aeroplane with synthetic jet fuel made partly from natural gas, marking another milestone in Qatar's plan to market its abundant gas supplies to a wider customer base.
The gas-based portion of the fuel used in yesterday's six-hour flight from London to Doha came from a Shell gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Malaysia. But it is Qatar that will become the leading supplier of liquid transport fuels derived from gas, after Shell and the state-owned Qatar Petroleum finish building the world's biggest GTL plant. "Qatar's position as the GTL capital of the world has been further enhanced with today's achievement," said Abdullah al Attiyah, the Qatari deputy prime minister and minister for energy and industry.
"Commercial aviation is one of the exciting new markets that this opens up, helping us maximise the value of our natural resources." The first phase of the Pearl GTL facility being built at Ras Laffan Industrial City, is scheduled for completion by the end of next year. It will take at least a year to build production to the full projected capacity and the plant is expected to start producing the "GTL kerosene" approved for use in jet fuel from early 2012.
"Much work remains to be done but we are on schedule to deliver," said Peter Voser, the chief executive of Shell, which has been working on GTL technology for the past 30 years. Malcolm Brinded, the executive director of Shell's upstream international division, said: "We are now well on the way to launching GTL on a world scale for the first time, thanks to our partnership with Qatar Petroleum." When both phases of Pearl GTL are completed, the project will process about 1.6 billion cubic feet a day of gas from Qatar's giant North Field, the largest gasfield in the world, into 140,000 barrels per day (bpd) of GTL products, including gas-derived versions of petrol and diesel, and 120,000 bpd of ethane, a gas used mainly as a petrochemicals feedstock.
The project will also produce about 120,000 bpd of condensate, a type of light crude oil produced from gas deposits rich in suspended liquids. Pearl would have about five times the capacity of the existing Shell plant in Malaysia, a spokesman for the company said. Leading gas producers have for decades dreamed of tapping into the expanding global market for transport fuels with GTL technology but that has proved elusive due to high project costs and volatile energy prices.
Under its most optimistic projection, the US government expects global GTL production to reach no more than 700,000 bpd by 2030. Malaysia, South Africa and Qatar are the only countries with existing GTL production. Qatar's Oryx GTL project, a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and South Africa's Sasol, began operating three years ago and produces about 34,000 bpd of fuel. Liquid fuels derived from natural gas have environmental advantages over conventional refined oil products because they contain lower concentrations of sulphur and particulate contaminants that contribute to air pollution when the fuel is burned.
And in the long-term, the world's crude oil reserves may be exhausted well ahead of its gas reserves, geologists predict. For yesterday's flight the aircraft, an Airbus A340-600 using Rolls-Royce Trent 556 engines, was fuelled by a roughly 50:50 blend of GTL kerosene and standard jet fuel, a mix that has won regulatory blessing. The flight followed more than two yeas of scientific work conducted mainly in Doha by a consortium of Airbus, Qatar Airways, Qatar Petroleum, Qatar Science and Technology Park, Rolls-Royce, Shell and WOQOD, a Qatari oil marketing company.
"This milestone flight is the first step in making this alternative fuel available to airlines," ," said Akbar al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways. "Qatar Airways looks forward to continuing to work with the consortium members to further develop this exciting project and commit towards a cleaner environment." Rainer Ohler, the head of communication at Airbus, said the GTL-powered flight brought the aviation industry a step closer to being able to use fuels derived from woodchip waste and other sources of biomass, a development that would help the industry contribute to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Biomass is considered a "clean" energy source because carbon dioxide emissions from burning such fuels are offset by carbon withdrawals from the atmosphere by the growing plants that provide them. Several airlines, including Continental, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic, have recently tested biofuels on commercial flights. @Email:email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org