The lubricant industry had to wait a couple decades for its first large gas-to-liquids base oil plant. One industry observer thinks the next few wont take so long.
The gas-to-liquids era has arrived, refining expert Amy Claxton told the ICIS World Base Oils & Lubricants Conference in London on 23 February. She was referring to a giant plant that Shell and Qatar Petroleum opened in Ras Laffan, Qatar, last year. She went on to predict that three more GTL plants will come to market by 2020.
The Pearl base stock plant is part of a larger facility that uses Fischer-Tropsch technology to convert natural gas to liquids that are then refined into petroleum products, including base oils. The base oil plant has two production trains, one that opened in August and a second scheduled to start up in mid-2012. When the second unit streams, the plant will have capacity to make almost 1.4 million metric tons per year of base oils, a mix of 4 and 8 centiStoke Group III-plus quality and a light-weight 3 cSt Group II.
Pearl is the first large commercial GTL base oil plant to come to market after long delays and cancellations of several other such projects.
Claxton, principal of My Energy consultancy in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, U.S., boldly predicted several more GTL base oil plants will join the fray as well. Shell, Sasol and ExxonMobil all have significant Fischer-Tropsch technologies in their portfolios, and Chevron has a massive technology portfolio for upgrading F-T fluids to base oil, she said. These represent decades of time and interest by all these companies. They wont just sit on the shelf.
Instead, the majors will try to exploit large shale gas reserves in the United States or massive natural gas reserves in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe. Several large GTL feasibility studies are under way now in Canada, the U.S., China, Uzbekistan and Iran, Claxton pointed out. No Shell Pearl equivalent plant has been announced yet, but several other F-T plants have been announced with fuels capacity from gas or coal, and I see several where putting a base oil plant on the back end would make sense.
So, three more GTL base oil plants will be built by 2020, she forecast, each likely to be on the scale of the Pearl facility.
While welcome to lube blenders, Claxton said that many GTL plants will hurt existing base oil suppliers, especially if accompanied by additional plants that use oil refinery hydrocracker bottoms. My Energy expects to see six new hydrocracker bottoms plants making a total 3 million t/y of base oil and three GTL plants adding another 4.5 million t/y; all will be Group II and III. Meanwhile the demand for finished lubricants will be almost flat, so when you put all this new capacity in, you will have to take the equivalent capacity out, Claxton asserted. And most of the capacity that closes will be Group I.