GTL: A fuel of the future

31 March 2006

The goal is ambitious. By 2020, Sweden will be fossil fuel-independent, according to the country’s Prime Minister Goran Persson. The plan would see the whole economy switch over to renewable energy sources in response to a threefold threat: global climate change, the economic impact of rising crude oil prices and warnings by some that world oil production may have peaked.

Sweden is not the only country seeking to rid itself of dependence on fossil fuels. US President Bush in his State of the Union address on 31 January declared the launch of a wide-ranging energy programme aimed at cutting oil imports from the Middle East by more than 75 per cent by 2025 and reducing domestic oil consumption through the introduction of alternative fuels and new technologies.Although the days of oil are far from over, alternatives - including gas-to-liquids (GTL) fuel - will play an ever more important role in meeting the world’s energy requirements.Originally developed by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s, the GTL process converts natural gas into synthetic oil, which can then be further processed into fuel, naphtha, wax and other liquid petroleum or speciality products. GTL fuel has several advantages. First, it is produced from natural gas, which is abundantly available. It also has a higher cetane count than conventional diesel, and therefore allows for a better performance in engines. It is colourless, odourless and, most important of all, much cleaner than conventional diesel fuel, being virtually free of sulphur and aromatics.’GTL has significantly lower emissions than conventional diesel,’ says Jack Jacometti, vice-president at Shell middle distillate synthesis (SMDS) global development at Shell Gas & Power. ‘CO [carbon monoxide] emissions are reduced by 90 per cent, the reason being that the hydrogen content of GTL fuel is about the highest you can get in a liquid fuel. The high hydrogen content explains why it burns very well and thus little CO is left over.’The ultra-clean GTL fuel can be used in two ways. First, it can be blended with conventional diesel to help meet the ever stricter environmental standards in Europe and the US. Or it can be sold as a product in its own right. In Europe in particular, where diesel cars capture roughly 50 per cent of the market, GTL has already made an impact. ‘You have the option to use GTL in dedicated engines, which we foresee being used in taxi or bus fleets for example,’ says Jacometti. ‘At the same time you can blend it with conventional diesel. We sell it as Shell V-Power Diesel. It is being used in Germany and other European countries, and it is a great success.’Its characteristics make GTL an obvious choice for the transport industry, one of the world’s largest oil consumers and pollutants. It will be much needed. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2006, total energy consumption in the transportationsector will rise by 55 per cent to 43,780 trillion BTUs - or 7,443 million barrels of oil equivalent - a year by 2030.Better than dieselWhile the environmental aspect is without doubt highly appealing to governments everywhere, GTL fuel has other advantages. ‘We prefer not to call it diesel because it is much better than diesel: we call it GTL fuel,’ says Jacometti. ‘But it is totally compatible with diesel engines and infrastructure, and this is an incredible cost saving. If you imagine that you have a beautiful fuel but you would have to create a whole new infrastructure around it, this would run into millions of dollars.’Jacometti says the fuel’s advantages are even more pronounced if it is used in engines specially designed for GTL. The governments of Japan and the US have started funding GTL-related research. Tokyo is sponsoring the development of engines designed to run on GTL, with Japan’s Toyota and its heavy-duty arm Hino implementing i

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