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The GTL Era Begins


PITTSBURGH – After years of waiting and wondering, the lubricants industry has its first world-scale gas-to-liquids base oil plant: the Pearl project in the Middle East. Expect lubricants made with base oil from this Shell-Qatar Petroleum joint venture to be priced in line with other synthetics, a Shell Lubricants official said here.

The GTL base oil is a really great quality [API] Group III synthetic base stock, Mark Ferner, group manager for Shell Lubricants Technology Group, told a media briefing here July 14.

Originally announced in 2003, Pearl is making its debut two years later than hoped and at a final cost somewhere between $18 billion and $19 billion, far beyond Shells initial estimate of $5 billion. Most of the refinerys output is not base oil of course, but massive volumes of fuel oil and other liquid petroleum products made from Qatars huge reserves of natural gas. These include a waxy raffinate that can be upgraded into base oil at Pearls two identical trains, which will have 28,800 barrels per day of total capacity when completed. The facility will produce three grades: 4 and 8 centiStoke Group III base oils and a 3 cSt Group II.

The surest sign that the first GTL base oil trains streaming was imminent came in late spring, when Shell issued a request for bids to ship base stocks beginning Aug. 1. Shell has said the second train will open next year, and at that size, it will instantly catapult into place as the worlds third-largest base oil refinery, after Motiva in Port Arthur, Texas – which is also a Shell joint venture – and S-Oil in Onsan, South Korea.

How will GTL Group III make a difference in Shells finished lubricants? Its going to help us be able to come out with really good products in regard to low viscosity, low volatility, high fuel efficiency, lower emissions and better wear protection, Ferner said at the briefing. Its fully competitive with other premium products. Its just starting to ramp up in Qatar right now.

Ferner, whose group is responsible for motor oil, ATF and gear oil formulations, confirmed that during the Qatar plants startup, all of the GTL base stocks will be used in Shells own branded products. And then over the course of time, well see where things line out, and see how the strategy should be set, he added.

Michelle Herskowitz, communications manager for Shell Lubricants Americas, noted that discussions were ongoing on how best to market products made with GTL base stocks.

If you look at the way we do things, we dont break out additives and base oils, she told reporters. So theres certainly a line of thinking this should not be any different. We all recognize the opportunity to share it, as well. Its not finalized, and you will be hearing from us on how we plan to present it to the marketplace.

Ferner noted Shell will likely emphasize the benefits of its GTL, which he said provides a very consistent, high quality base for lubricant formulations. A lot of attributes that come from it are not going to be just from the base oil, but how were going to be able to balance the whole formulation together, he explained. So I dont think youre going to see anything that says GTL alone provides this [advantage] – its going to be the fact weve got these new formulations containing GTL that have these really great attributes.

He noted that many synthetic base stocks – and GTL in particular – provide very good volatility. Im talking about the hot spots in the engine where it can reach 400 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, he explained. Thats enough to start to boil away or evaporate some of the lubricant molecules, where they go out the exhaust system. As they go out the exhaust system, they leave coatings on the exhaust aftertreatment, and can start to impair fuel efficiency and emission controls. Using synthetic products and in particular the Group III GTL, gives us the ability to control that.

Lubricants made with Pearls base stocks also can excel at cold cranking viscosity, he said, a key low-temperature parameter for automotive engine oils. The synthetics, and again in particular the GTL base stocks, are extremely good at that, Fern added. They are very consistent in viscosity across different temperatures.

So it gives us the ability to not worry too much about building in other additives to be able to deal with volatility and cold crank, he continued. It gives us the ability to focus in on what we need to. Which means we dont have to have as many things to balance into the overall formulation.

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