Arabian Alchemy: Shell makes black gold in Qatar

Longer chain hydrocarbons naturally have a higher boiling point, so they're easier to keep liquid, easier to store in tanks. Years of transporting liquified natural gas in large quantities have proven that the whole effort is an expensive pain in the -- expensive pain.

What's much more important about the synthetic long-chain hydrocarbons from the Pearl operation is that they are very much like gasoline, diesel fuel, and kerosene (jet fuel.) Since they're being built-to-order, so to speak, they have an advantage over conventional fuels too -- they're much purer. Natural gas is perfectly "sweet" -- in fact, a sulfur compound, ethyl mercaptan, is added artificially to give it the "smell of gas". Otherwise, natural gas would be odorless. The GTL process produces synthetic longer-chain hydrocarbons that never had the odd sulfur compound, or aldehydes and ketones (more smelly stuff) to be removed.

One result is a fuel like diesel fuel, that can be used without engine changes in a conventional diesel engine, but that produces cleaner exhaust, little or no soot, and is much less smelly. Changing the process lightly creates something very much like gasoline; a slightly different change creates something like kerosene.

The other result is this: we have lots of natural gas, throughout the world and in the USA in particular. Hydraulic fracturing -- "fracking" -- has opened up amazing reserves that weren't thought to be practical a few years ago.The discovery of immense clathrate deposits -- so called "burning ice" -- are another immense source of natural gas. (In fact, the estimates right now are that clathrate deposits are the equivalent of twice all other other fossil fuels on Earth.) And perhaps best of all, the current costs of transporting natural gas are high enough that many refineries and oil fields simply flare off -- burn -- waste natural gas.

The gas-to-liquid process makes all those sources available not just to generate power and heat, but to replace fuel oils, and even lubrication oils. The combination of natural gas production and GTL technology could conceivably replace the whole expensive infrastructure required to move oilgas from the Middle East to Europe and the Americas, and make "waste" natural gas into a commercially useful product. As long as the price is right.

That's the literal bottom line to the GTL process: it appears that the Shell process, as it stands right now, is financially feasible if the price of oil exceeds $20 a barrel.