Typically, converting gaseous fuels like natural gas to liquids requires high upfront capital investment and substantial energy inputs to maintain operations and results in significant energy loss. Despite these challenges, smaller-scale gas-to-liquid (GTL) deals have increased sharply of late. They include a joint development project involving Waste Management, NRG Energy, Velocys, and Ventech to develop a platform than can convert landfill gas to renewable fuels and chemicals.
To date, GTL projects have been built in only the most extreme cases – where macroeconomic trends are especially favorable or when liquid fuels are unavailable (e.g., Germany during World War II and South Africa under apartheid, both of which relied on coal-to-liquid conversion).
These narrow circumstances explain why just five GTL facilities are in operation globally today, despite GTL technologies being proven commercially. The most high-profile project, Shell’s Pearl Plant in Qatar, commissioned in 2011, cost a whopping $18 billion to construct, or about $8 per gallon of annual production capacity. With such a high price tag, the project’s return on investment (ROI) hinges on a free supply of natural gas feedstock and a per-barrel oil price in excess of $40 (brent crude was trading at about $110 per barrel just before ISIS’ recent advance in Iraq). Meanwhile, Shell recently cancelled another high-profile GTL project slated to be built in Louisiana, citing high estimated capital costs and market uncertainty regarding natural gas and petroleum product prices. In short, commodity prices matter.
In light of this limited market uptake, the recent surge of smaller-scale GTL projects is unexpected. Targeting stranded or associated gas resources, however, these systems are able to skirt many of the macroeconomic barriers to the large-scale GTL projects described above.
Usually wasted or unused, stranded or associated gas presents a number of financial challenges to bring to market using conventional infrastructure. In other words, the problem lies not in getting the gas out of the ground, but in finding a practical, economical, and efficient way of moving it to market.
In the case of stranded gas – gas fields located near local markets that are usually too small or in places too distant from industrialized markets – smaller-scale GTL processing can convert natural gas into a liquid product that is cheaper to transport. In associated gas applications, where gas is either flared or injected into oilfields to maximize recovery, smaller-scale GTL can unlock new revenue streams.
Smaller and Safer
In both cases, smaller-scale GTL conversion has significant advantages over conventional infrastructure. Shrinking the hardware allows greater tailoring of systems to the local resource supply and reduced construction costs. The modularity of GTL systems allows capital to be allocated in phases, reducing risk to project investors. And because the modules and reactors are designed only once and then manufactured many times, much of the plant can be standardized and shop-fabricated in skid-mounted modules.
The opportunity for smaller-scale GTL remains significant. Stranded and associated gas is relatively abundant (estimated at 40%-60% of the world’s proven gas reserves). One of the more exciting opportunities that has gained attention more recently is the pairing of frontend conversion technologies for processing abundantly available solid biomass and waste into synthetic gas (or syngas) which unlocks many more opportunities globally for smaller GTL platforms. Navigant Research’s recently published Smart Waste report forecasts that annual revenue from municipal solid waste energy recovery will increase to $6.5 billion worldwide by 2023, due in part to the expansion of emerging technologies like small-scale GTL.