Shale gas is changing the world. It is saving the earth in myriad ways that most industry outsiders don’t even begin to comprehend, let alone talk about.
Prior to the shale revolution, natural gas was an expensive premium fuel. Now there’s so much of it, some smart people are thinking about alternate uses.
We already know about natural gas transportation for trucks, buses and fleets. Up to forty percent of oil use comes from only five percent of vehicles. Using natural gas to replace either gasoline or diesel makes perfect sense to reduce pollution, cost, noise and CO2. Except in London apparently, where despite an extra 9500 deaths, The Guardian would prefer both natural gas and bodies are kept in the ground and others prefer everyone to get on their bike. London Local Energy will be pushing natural gas transportation big time, so for now, we’ll leave it alone and talk about some other exciting technology at various stages of development.
Natural gas transportation is low hanging fruit, but the big transportation CO2 issue is high above. 3% of EU carbon dioxide comes from air transport. There are a variety of solutions. Firstly, the newer the plane the more efficient it is as carbon fibre replaces metal. Other propose bio fuels. There is even some work being done on LNG in air transport. It’s mighty cold up there at 35,000 feet.
An easier solution may come as a result of US shale abundance. A first step is to convert natural gas into methanol.That was always possible, but is now commercial thanks to cheap gas.
Stranded gas can be monetized by producing chemical (or fuel grade) methanol and transporting it to the market. Since the 1980s, there has been a significant change in the way the methanol market has worked. Remote producers of methanol have begun to gain market share over long-established production sites close to the customers. Gas economics has been the driving force behind these changes. As gas demand has risen, the methanol producers in North America and Europe have been squeezed out. Because methanol can be transported easily, methanol production has moved to remote locations where gas is cheaper.
Methanol is a fundamental building block of the chemical industry and today North American industrial production is set to soar according to RBN Energy:
There are other petchem plants being developed to use natural gas as a feedstock to produce petrochemicals. We have documented more than a dozen methanol mega-projects in various stages of planning, design and construction, most of them along the Gulf Coast that (if they are all built) could increase US methanol production capacity more than 10-fold and consume as much as 2.4 Bcf/d of natural gas feedstock (see Skyrockets in Flight). Another chemical derived from natural gas is ammonia – that is mostly used as fertilizer and is now being manufactured again in the U.S. for the first time in years (see Fertile Prospects for Natural Gas). We have also posted blogs on plans by SASOL and Shell to build two huge plants converting natural gas to liquids (GTL) in Louisiana (see Jumping Jack Gas) – both of those projects have subsequently been put on hold in the wake of lower oil prices. This time we take a closer look at a project proposal that advanced a step in March of this year when BASF selected Freeport, TX as the site for a new world-scale methane-to-propylene plant. The BASF plant – the first of its type in the U.S. would produce 475 thousand metric tons per year of propylene – subject to a final investment decision (FID) by BASF in 2016.
Natural gas as cheap fuel, fertilizer and plastic. Shall we leave those in the ground, too? Another by product of natural gas abundance is replacing another 4% of the world’s CO2 from marine bunker fuel with either methanol or CNG or LNG. Replacing bunker fuel with gas could create significant demand worldwide as this from a recent Oxford Energy report on natural gas notes:
We’ve already seen CNG and LNG ferries, who are first adapters since they only need one fuel bunker, but this is starting to work worldwide with Carnival Cruises recently making a significant bet. Carnival have over 21% of the world cruise market, making them the largest single operator. But they don’t see LNG as niche:
Carnival’s four next-generation cruise ships for Costa Cruises and AIDA Cruises will be the first in the industry to be powered at sea by LNG. These new ships will use LNG to generate 100 percent of the ship’s power both in port and on the open sea – an industry-first innovation that will significantly reduce exhaust emissions to help protect the environment and support the company’s sustainability goals.
Neither do LNG container ships:
IHS Maritime reports that more than 40 container ships that are LNG-fueled or LNG-ready have been ordered or are under construction worldwide. United Arab Shipping Co. is building 10 large container ships that can be adapted to run on LNG. MOL also is building ships that can be converted to LNG operation. The list of operators building LNG-ready ships includes Nordic Hamburg Shipping and U.S. domestic operators Matson and Crowley Maritime.
The environmental impact of natural gas at sea isn’t too far off what it could be on London streets:
By switching to LNG, TOTE is reducing NOx emissions by 98 percent, SOx by 97 percent, carbon dioxide by 72 and particulate matter by 60 percent in the Puerto Rico trade.
But better to have electric buses, even if that means they’ll be 20% coal powered, something even the Victorians never thought of. Diesel electric hybrids sound like a hybrid solution, cutting air pollution and allowing buses to branded green instead of red. Unfortunately the solution doesn’t often work:
London’s new Routemaster bus has major battery issues. The bus, thanks to its “green” diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, is meant to be “the most environmentally friendly bus of its type”—according to Transport for London, anyway. Out of the 500 new Routemasters currently on the roads, however, 80 of them are running in diesel-only mode because of failed batteries, pumping out lots of pollution.
What’s interesting about natural gas to methanol and fertilizer, as with natural gas transportation by land and sea, is that this stuff is mostly mature proven technology. Abundant natural gas makes it work better. Journalists keep the news in the ground, and bury the story. Much better to have smug stories about either experimental or inconsequential impacts about some sexy sounding renewable technologies.
What UniBio does is take natural gas and convert it into animal feed using a naturally occurring bacterial process.
It sounds simple enough, but the implications are profound.
Currently, it takes one hectare of land to produce 700 kilogrammes of soy, but the equivalent per hectare figure for UniBio is 25,000 tonnes.
That’s several orders of magnitude higher and represents a significant easing of pressure on scarce environmental resources.
Similarly, where it takes an estimated 600 litres of water (excluding rainwater) to produce one kilogramme of soy, it takes only five litres of water to produce the same amount of UniProtein.
Shale gas saves the earth. No wonder that story rarely make the papers. I propose the good news about the possible use of natural gas as animal feed must also reach the feline community. That will make natural gas an easier sell to any number of mad cat ladies, and make life better for the rest of us.