When British Petroleum announced its new gas-to-liquid plant would make its home in Nikiski in June 2000, the company was brimming with prospects for growth.
Today, in spite of an untimely downturn at the hub of BP Alaska operations in Anchorage, where more than 100 jobs were cut in January, the GTL plant is operating on schedule and is preparing to go to full-time functionality by the end of the month.
"It will be into the second quarter when we begin production," said GTL Project Director Paul Richards. "The reorganization has had no impact on GTL's budget or the number of people here."
The plant has a full-time staff of 20.
The primary function of the experimental facility will be to turn natural gas into synthetic fuels through a three-step process. The first step is breaking down the gas converting methane and water to carbon monoxide and hydrogen, or syngas.
BP has developed a compact reformer 1/40th the size of conventional ones, which is expected to reduce costs in construction and transportation to the North Slope.
Step two takes the syngas and turns it into a long molecular-chain paraffin. The third step is hydrocracking, breaking down the long-chain paraffin into short molecular-chain fuels such as diesel, jet fuel and naphtha.
The goal of the plant, Richards said, is to eventually begin producing usable, saleable fuel.
"We are still hoping to maintain the actual flow sheet of 300 barrels per day," he said, speaking of the mark the company expects the plant to reach. "We won't be able to know if we can until we get up and operating."
Because of the experimental nature of the plant, Richards said, the initial intent was for it to operate for only five years. In the meantime, GTL expects to see new developments above and beyond the goals BP has set out for it.
"There are other things that are being studied in lab, but until they've been tested. I can't discuss them," he said.
Some of the byproducts of the the gas-to-liquid process can be used in and around the plant to increase overall efficiency. Ammonia is created, which could be used in fertilizer plants to make urea, while methanol can be used as chemical feed stock in making plastics.
Most noteworthy, however is the steam generated during the process. Steam created by cooling can be used to generate electricity. BP has already made plans to capitalize on this particular side effect.
In 2003, the GTL plant will begin using a solid oxide fuel cell unit that will convert low-pressure natural gas -- the excess steam -- into electricity to operate the plant's day-to-day activities.
The process will act just like an ordinary, household battery, producing direct current electricity and changing it to alternating current, like the type of power that comes from household wall outlets.
GTL engineering manager Steve Fortune said the solid oxide unit is designed to be more efficient and more environmentally sound.
"The fuel cell is far more efficient," Fortune said. "It produces far more power per gallon of diesel and produces less emissions."
The unit will reuse the heat produced during the biochemical process, reducing waste and increasing efficiency. And the cell will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than a third from equivalently sized diesel generators and nearly eliminates emissions of other harmful gases generally produced by combustion energy systems.
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