A Texas company, Synfuels International, has come up with a way to turn natural gas into gasoline and other liquid fuels that is much cheaper and cleaner than established processes, namely the Fischer-Tropsch approached used since Nazi Germany converted coal and coal-bed methane into diesel fuel back during the Second World War.
Now why would anyone convert natural gas into gasoline? It’s not that all natural gas would undergo this process. The target is natural gas that results as a byproduct of oil extraction in remote locations. Oil companies, more focused on getting at the oil, usually flare or vent natural gas that comes to the surface because it’s too expensive to build a dedicated pipeline that would collect it and send it to market. A lot of this gas is wasted this way. The World Bank estimates about 150 billion cubic meters every year is flared — the combined total gas consumption of France and Germany. The associated greenhouse gas emissions are enormous.
Some, such as BP and Shell, have counted on Fischer-Tropsch plants as a less expensive alternative to building a dedicated natural gas pipeline. The plants would convert the natural gas into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel and transport it by truck/ship, or send it to market inside existing oil pipelines. Unfortunately the cost of Fischer-Tropsch still remains too high. Synfuels hope to change the game, offering plants that have a third the footprint of a Fischer-Tropsch plant but with the same output. “Why use a sledgehammer when you only need a hammer?” said Synfuels president Tom Rolfe. Scientists behind the company figure they can produce, on small scale, a barrel of gasoline from natural gas for about $25, compared to $35 for a Fischer-Tropsch plant benefiting from economies of scale. They also say their plant is cleaner, producing none of the hard waxes, toxic byproducts and other “crud” associated with Fischer-Tropsch.
For a full story on the Synfuels technology check out this article in MIT Technology Review. I don’t typically write about better ways to use fossil fuels, but in this case if we can put more natural gas to use rather than flare/vent it, and at the same time displace the use of oil, then it’s something that should be pursued.