A clear and sunny February afternoon in Nikiski was suddenly interrupted by a tremendous black pillar of smoke billowing into the sky just east of Mile 20 of the Kenai Spur Highway and the clamor of sirens wailing away as emergency vehicles rushed to the cloud's source.
But there would be no displays of firefighting heroism this day as the Nikiski Fire Department learned soon after the vehicles turned into the BP gas-to-liquids plant.
"Just firing her up," GTL project manager Paul Richards said with a smile shortly after the fray calmed down.
Richards said that while making a run at starting up the experimental facility on Feb. 6, something overheated and the entire system automatically "tripped," or went into fail-safe mode. The automatic emergency response was designed to quickly flush any fuel in the plant's pipes to a giant oven several hundred feet away to be burned off harmlessly.
Richards said he was pleased with the performance of the automatic shutoff system.
'We don't really have a set schedule with deadlines. Starting up a chemical plant is quite a bit more complicated than starting up an oil facility. We're working to start up the plant as soon as we can.',/b>
-- Dave MacDowell,
BP's director of external affairs for Alaska gas
"It did exactly what it was supposed to do," he said.
Although this is not typical of what happens at the experimental plant, this is a sign of progress. Just a few weeks before, BP said it had hopes to begin operations within two months.
When BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. completes testing at its GTL facility in Nikiski, company officials said the site will be returned to its original condition. This means the plant won't be around for the long run.
"BP has no plans to establish a commercial GTL facility in the Kenai area," said Dave Mac-Dowell, BP's director of external affairs for Alaska gas.
"Once the plant serves its purpose, it will be dismantled and the site will be restored to its appropriate form."
In early 2002, BP officials slated the facility to begin operations -- turning natural gas into liquid fuel -- sometime near the end of the third quarter that year.
Once up and running, the plant will test a compact reformer and a converter catalyst, two key parts of the GTL process.
The reformer is a new design and the catalyst a new formulation developed by BP in an effort to make the process more efficient. The catalyst is used in the second step in the process and will help induce the chemical transformation from gas to liquid fuel.
No exact startup date has been identified.
MacDowell said the testing period could last between 12 and 18 months once engineers are able to start up the plant, saying that if the company "can prove up any of these technologies sooner, we will."
But he added that no specific time frame for any operations has been etched in stone.
"We don't really have a set schedule with deadlines," he said. "Starting up a chemical plant is quite a bit more complicated than starting up an oil facility. We're working to start up the plant as soon as we can."
BP began construction of the plant in January 2000 with the primary goal of developing the process of turning natural gas into synthetic fuels.
The process would produce a projected 300 barrels of fuels such as naphtha, diesel or jet fuel during the testing period.
MacDowell would not call the plant a success just yet, but said the promise of success exists.
He said the commercial potential a proven GTL process holds for the company is tremendous.
"Success means proving that (these technologies) work, and we're confident that we'll be able to achieve that," he said.
"Once we prove up that technology, it has applications around the world, wherever there are stranded gas reserves."
The Nikiski plant is the final testing phase before building a commercial-scale plant. MacDowell said the company's broad focus is on transporting North Slope natural gas to market as easily as oil.
"Our goal remains transportation through Canada into North America, the world's largest market for natural gas."
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