Carl Mesters on gas-to-liquid fuel technology

Earth’s growing population means more vehicles, and more pollution. A Shell scientist describes a gas-to-liquids process for a cleaner-burning fuel.

Carl Mesters: Gas-to-liquids is a process where we take natural gas and convert that into liquids.

Carl Mesters is Chief Scientist for Chemistry and Catalysis for Shell. He’s talking about gas-to-liquids technology being developed for transportation.

Carl Mesters: Typically, you are used to transportation fuels being derived from crude oil. You start from an oil, and you convert that into different liquid products. Here you start from a gas.

Earth’s growing population means more vehicles, and more pollution. Mesters said the gas-to-liquids process leads to a cleaner-burning fuel.

Carl Mesters: Sulfur content in this gas-to-liquids product is virtually zero. So if there’s no sulfur in your liquid, there can’t be any sulfur emissions from that liquid.

Mesters said Shell started working in this area in the early 1970s. At first, they tried to create a liquid from coal. Later they switched to gas-to-liquids, ultimately leading to a plant in Malaysia that now produces 14,000 barrels each day. A second plant in Qatar will have 10 times that capacity. Gas-to-liquids fuels are now being tested in buses in China, commercial trucks in California, and other places.

Carl Mesters: We are basically testing them in every part of the world, and especially where environmental issues are very important.

Since the 1920s, interest in gas-to-liquid technology has waxed and waned, depending on availability of oil, according to Mesters.

Carl Mesters: In my life, the first time was in 1973, when we had what we call the first ‘oil crisis.’ And we foresaw in the early 80s that there would be a growing market for diesel-fueled cars compared to gasoline-fueled cars.

Mesters explained that natural gas, made of small molecules of methane, are linked together and converted into longer molecules such as what’s used in diesel fuel. It’s a three-step process where natural gas is heated to over a thousand degrees Celsius. That produces a waxy substance which is the building block that Mesters and colleagues use to create a variety of fuel products, including diesel, gasoline, and lubricants.

Carl Mesters: And that gives the fuel a much cleaner-burning, less particulate matter.

He spoke of several interesting gas-to-liquids trials now in progress.

Carl Mesters: One of the nicest, I thought, because it’s very close to my home town in the Netherlands, is a ferry between the Dutch mainlands and one of its islands going back and forth on this fuel simply to reduce emissions.

In 2008, gas-to-liquids fuels were also used by Shell to power a third straight win in the Le Mans 24-hour race. Mesters said he is excited about his work on gas-to-liquids fuels.

Carl Mesters: What I would like the public to know about gas-to-liquid technology is that it produces a superior liquid with respect to the properties in transportation, with respect to the envirnoment. It’s a technological challenge to improve that process. It’s very rewarding to be helping to bring this technology further. That’s a very challenging, but rewarding, job.

This podcast was made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Deborah Byrd