GTL plant misses initial goals

Officials say early glitches expected, but not a problem

Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The goal BP Exploration Alaska Inc. had for its $86 million experimental gas-to-liquid plant in Nikiski was that the plant produce its first barrel of synthetic fuel by April. That didn't happen.

BP officials aren't worried, however, and said the plant fell prey to the normal pitfalls any new startup might encounter. They are hopeful the plant will spawn its inaugural product within a month.

Steve Fortune, GTL engineering manager, said falling off schedule was to be expected.

"It's been the normal things that you find on plant startup," Fortune said. "Getting instrumentation to read correctly, tuning our controllers. We're just getting to the point where we're going to do a plant start-up this week. Hopefully, in the next few weeks we'll be at a point where we may have some product."

GTL project manager Paul Richards said the time line for being able to go to market with the new fuel will be longer, though.

"It's going to take six to 12 months to be able to go commercial," Richards said.

Fortune said building the plant was completed later than anticipated.

"Some of the construction activities took longer to complete than we expected," he said. "April was our optimistic goal, but we didn't quite meet our optimistic schedule. We really got going in June."

Fortune said testing of many of the plant's major components has been ongoing with safety measures in mind, and the outlook is positive.

"Most of the main pieces of machinery have been operating for the past few months," he said. "We're quite comfortable that the plant will operate quite safely."

BP began construction of the plant in January 2000 with the primary intention of turning natural gas into synthetic fuels through the Fischer-Tropsch GTL process. The process would produce a projected 300 barrels of short molecular-chain fuels such as diesel, jet fuel or naptha.

The GTL plant will operate for five years because of its experimental nature, and in the meantime, would test new energy technologies BP has developed.

Among those new technological advances planned for experimentation at the plant is a solid oxide fuel cell unit developed by Siemens-Westinghouse that will take run-off steam the plant creates and use it to generate electricity to operate the entire facility. But that, and other such experiments are in the distant future, Richards said.

"At the moment, people are still waiting to see how this technology performs," Richards said of the gas-to-liquids process. "Once we look successful, that's when things could really happen."

He said the closest planned project, the solid oxide fuel cell, won't be installed at the plant until sometime next year.

"At the moment, nothing that we will be implementing in the near future is in our focus," Richards said.

Fortune said his short-term goal is to have a product the energy industry can benefit from.

"What we're driving toward is that a year from now, we'll be moving into a stage with our partners, Davies Technologies, that we will be able to market to the industry," he said. "Our strategy is that by making it available to other people, the technology will continue to improve."

Even if BP doesn't reach that goal, Richards said the GTL plant will still have something to offer.

"Even if not the product or the full GTL facility, (the plant) can offer some parts of the GTL process," he said.

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