Will Shell Sell Any GTL?


LONDON – After many months of silence, Shell last week confirmed that its Pearl gas-to-liquids project in Qatar, which includes about 30,000 barrels per day (over 1 million metric tons per year) of base oil capacity, will begin production in early 2011. However, no decision has been made on availability of the GTL base oils for the merchant market.

David J. Wedlock, base oil technology manager with Shell Global Solutions, gave an update on base oils from the Pearl GTL project in Ras Laffan Industrial City, Qatar, a joint development of Shell and Qatar Petroleum, at the ICIS World Base Oils & Lubricants Conference here Feb. 19.

Construction on the project, which includes two identical trains, will be finished in the fourth quarter of 2010, Wedlock said, and product from the first train will begin to flow in early 2011. About six months later, production will begin at train two.

Shell intends to use the high quality GTL base oils for its own premium lubricants. Shell is the largest global lubricants marketer, Wedlock noted. We have a home for GTL base oils. There is no decision on availability for the third-party market.

According to Shells web site, Pearls ownership is spelled out in a development and production sharing agreement between Shell and the government of Qatar. The project is 100 percent Shell funded, and Shell is the sole operator.

35 Years in Development
Shell produced just grams per day of its first synthetic crude in its Amsterdam laboratory in 1973, Wedlock said. By 1983, a GTL pilot plant could make three barrels per day. A decade later, Shell began commercial GTL production in Bintulu, Malaysia, where total syncrude capacity is now 14,700 b/d.

The start up of Pearl has involved the filing of some 3,500 GTL-related patents and the development of advanced cobalt synthesis catalysts.

We are now on the second generation of cobalt-based synthesis catalyst, hydrocracking catalysts and dewaxing catalysts, Wedlock said, all produced by CRI/Criterion, a part of Shell.

Pearl is world scale, he continued. Together, its two 70,000 b/d GTL trains (each producing about 17,500 b/d of naphtha and normal paraffin, 12,500 b/d of kerosene, 25,000 b/d of gas oil, and 15,000 b/d of base oils) represent a 10-time scale-up from Bintulu.

Unlike Bintulu, there will be no waxes from the Pearl project, said Wedlock. It will produce base oils in the viscosity range of 4 to 8 centiStoke at 100 degrees C. GTL base oil is a very good [API] Group III, and it will be the core component of Shells future Group III slate, he continued. The base oils will be networked globally via three storage hubs, in Hamburg, Germany, Hong Kong, and the U.S. Gulf.

Better for Blending
Shell Lubricants will be using GTL base oils in its new formulations to address new market requirements, said Wedlock. The GTL base oils are ideally suited for energy-conserving low-viscosity lubricants, for improved engine durability, for reducing emissions, and for improving after-treatment device durability.

The base oils mark a significant improvement and enhance lubricant blending flexibility, Wedlock said, particularly for 0W-20 and 5W-20 grades.

Asked what distinguishes GTL from Group III and other high quality base oils, Wedlock said, Its hard to answer today before the product is in use, but the technology is different. GTL starts with very high viscosity indexfeed and downgrades it to make base oils. Volumes will be significant, so the market will not be short on high quality Group III. Wedlock declined to address cost, but added, I dont think well see massive overhangs of GTL.

GTL quality can be adjusted by changing yield, the same as with mineral Group IIIs, Wedlock noted. But theres no point in quality give-away. You need a fit-for-purpose base oil.

GTL base oils from the Pearl project represent the next generation of low volatility Group III base oil, Wedlock concluded.

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