Making crude from waste gas and carbon

A start-up has devised a process to transform waste natural gas at oil wells into crude oil by using a catalyst and carbon.

Carbon is used to transform natural gas into a synthetic oil that can be blended with natural crude feedstocks. (Image Credit: Carbon Sciences)

The steady flame of burning natural gas is a familiar sight at oil wells. A start-up has devised a process that would eliminate the waste and greenhouse gas pollution by transforming all associated gas into oil.

Natural gas is an undesired byproduct of oil drilling, and massive volumes of methane are continuously burned off by wells in a practice known as “flaring.” Gas deposits can also be a hazard, as evidenced by BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

California-based Carbon Sciences is targeting the expense and bad publicity of flaring with its novel gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology that it announced yesterday. Its ambition is to make the gas become profitable – even when processed on a small scale.

Carbon Sciences’ process would add value by creating “CarbonCrude,” a synthetic crude oil that can be blended into natural crude oil for processing into commercial fuels at refineries. Traditional GTL operations aim to produce finished fuels. SmartPlanet previously covered Carbon Sciences while it was developing its technology.

Byron Elton, CEO of Carbon Sciences, estimates that the cost of a collocated CarbonCrude facility would be between US$15-25M with payback possible within 5-10 years. The cost of Shell’s Pearl GTL facility in Qatar, which creates diesel fuel, has exceeded $20 billion, he noted.

Another key difference lies in how CarbonCrude is produced, Elton explained. “Our front end is Co2 reforming of methane. It consumes and uses Co2 as opposed to producing it. It’s a greener, more efficient, and lower cost initiative.”

The process works by using a natural gas reforming catalyst (comprised of nickel and cobalt) that consumes CO2 to create syngas. A low-intensity Fischer-Tropsch reaction then converts the syngas into CarbonCrude.

“It’s easiest is to throw [CarbonCrude] into supply, or use it to produce higher value products like transportation fuels or lubes. It depends on the customer,” Elton said.

(Image Credit: Carbon Sciences)

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