Planes that Run on Natural Gas

Qatar Airlines is gearing up their jets to run on a fuel derived from natural gas - so don't expect to see fuel tanks holding liquefied gas. Similar to the "Messerschmitt Fuel" in World War II that was derived from coal, they are called synfuels.
October 31, 2012, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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What can a small, Persian Gulf nation do with a glut of natural gas? This is the problem Qatar faces as it "has relatively little oil and vast supplies of natural gas. Oil goes on tankers to distant destinations, but moving natural gas is much harder for the Persian Gulf emirate. So Royal Dutch/Shell built a gas-to-liquids (or synthetic fuel or synfuel) plant called Pearl that makes a variety of liquid fuels.'

Synfuels are a 'back-to-the-future' type of energy development that have come into vogue not from a shortage of oil, as was the case in the past, but abundant, cheap natural gas.

The New York Times energy and environmental reporter, Matthew L. Wald writes that "South Africa...was driven to make liquids from coal in the days when its apartheid regime faced trade sanctions and the country could not import oil. Now the country makes diesel and jet fuel from coal because it makes economic sense."

Wald indicates that Qatar Airways will be using the new synfuel when its new airport is opened in late 2013.

Qatar is not alone in building gas-to-liquids plants. Andrew Herndon and Brian Swint write in Bloomberg News that a "Chesapeake Energy Corp.-backed company and Oxford Catalysts Group Plc are planning U.S. factories to make diesel, gasoline and jet fuel from gas, which fell to a decade-low price this year. Their goal is to make motor fuels more cheaply and easily than oil-based products produced at giant refineries, and all within two years."

Herndon and Swint write describe the actual chemical process known as "Fischer-Tropsch after the German scientists who developed it in the 1920s. Germany commercialized the process in the 1930s to manufacture liquid fuel from domestic coal amid oil shortages before and during World War II." It became known as "Messerschmitt Fuel".

The environmental footprint of synfuel derived from natural gas compared to 'conventional' diesel fuel appears unsettled. Not so when it comes from coal though.

Wald writes, "In South Africa's case, environmentalists are horrified because such fuels have a bigger carbon footprint than fuel from ordinary oil because of all the extra processing involved. In fact, it is like an extreme version of the tar sands of Alberta, which Canada turns into a crude oil that environmentalists have been trying to keep out of the United States."

The carbon footprint of the jet synfuel will be a factor for Qatar Airways due to "the European Union's taxes on carbon dioxide emissions by foreign carriers that fly in and out of its airports."

[Note: Synfuels should not be confused with liquefied natural gas or LNG, derived from natural gas, landfill gas, or bio-gas, that is used as a clean-burning substitute for diesel fuel in trucks (along with compressed natural gas (CNG)]

Thanks to Mark Boshnack

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Published on Thursday, October 25, 2012 in The New York Times - Green Blog
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