Texas A&M University has established a research center in Qatar, one of the world’s largest gas producers, to develop technologies for extracting shale gas more efficiently and to train students for jobs in gas processing amid the U.S. shale boom.
Regents earlier this month formally approved the Gas and Fuels Research Center, which will serve as a clearinghouse for studies about how to find, produce and make money from the vast new supplies of shale gas unlocked by advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
“We would like to carry out scientific research that ultimately leads to commercial applications to create novel gas processing pathways that work better, cheaper, greener and safer than existing technologies,” said Mahmoud El-Halwagi, the College Station-based managing director of the new center. He is a chemical engineering professor at A&M.
Nimir Elbashir of Qatar, the center’s director, said its goal is to provide a bridge between academia and industry, cranking out research that could solve real-world problems,
The center will be housed at A&M’s campus in Qatar, a small Persian Gulf nation with extensive experience in natural gas processing. Qatar leads the world in liquefied natural gas exports and is home to the world’s largest gas-to-liquids facility, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Qatar Petroleum that can convert up to 1.6 billion cubic feet per day of gas.
A&M developed the research hub as U.S. companies scramble to capitalize on cheap, abundant natural gas, which is fueling a manufacturing resurgence and a building spree.
Among the planned facilities are plants for converting natural gas into valuable liquid components, an old technique that has garnered new interest because of the now-abundant U.S. natural gas. Nearly $15 billion in new plants have been announced, which could boost U.S. capacity to make hydrocarbon liquids such as jet fuel and diesel by 103,300 barrels per day, according to a study by the University of Texas’ Center for Energy Economics.
Some companies also are eyeing projects to liquefy natural gas for international shipment on tankers.
Liquefaction projects in various stages of the regulatory process include the Cameron LNG project in southwestern Louisiana; Cheniere Energy’s Sa-bine Pass project, which is nearing completion along the Louisiana-Texas border; and Golden Pass LNG, a joint venture of Qatar Petroleum, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips near Port Arthur.
The Oryx Gas-to-Liquids plant in Qatar, shown under construction in 2005, is the world’s largest such facility. (Associated Press photo)
A&M’s new Gas and Fuels Research Center will include 19 researchers in Qatar and College Station and will operate as a unit of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, which conducts engineering and technology research in collaboration with colleges statewide. Funding from the Engineering Experiment Station and the Qatar campus provided initial support for the center, but the A&M system expects federal grants and industry partnerships will fund the center within three years.
Besides research, the center aims to train engineers and technical staff for highly skilled work in Qatar’s gas processing fields, where large multinational companies like Shell and Exxon Mobil now mostly employ workers from outside of the country.
The government has been trying to boost the number of Qatari nationals in the workforce, including support for new universities like Texas A&M at Qatar.
The center will serve as a training hub for researchers and graduate students, offering specialized post-graduate courses in energy and natural gas processing in Qatar and in the United States, according to A&M’s proposal.
“The needs of the state of Qatar and the state of Texas are quite aligned,” said El-Halwagi, the professor in College Station. “Texas takes pride in being the energy capital of the world and Qatar takes pride in being the gas capital of the world.”