Texas A&M University has established a new research center in Qatar, one of the world’s largest gas producers, to develop new technologies to more efficiently extract shale gas and 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 produce, explore 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,” Dr. Mahmoud El-Halwagi, managing director of the center and chemical engineering professor at Texas A&M said in an interview with Fuel Fix.
The goal is to provide a bridge between academia and industry, cranking out research that could solve real-world problems, Director Dr. Nimir Elbashir said.
The center will be housed at A&M’s campus in Qatar, a small Middle East 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 Shell and Qatar Petroleum that can convert up to 1.6 billion cubic feet per day of gas.
A&M developed the research hub at a time when U.S. companies are scrambling to capitalize on cheap, abundant natural gas, which is fueling a domestic manufacturing resurgence for the first time in decades.
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The deluge of shale gas has touched off a building spree as downstream companies expand, upgrade, retrofit and build new facilities to process the new products.
Among the new proposals are gas-to-liquids plants, an old technique that has garnered new interest in the United States. 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 released in July by the University of Texas’ Center for Energy Economics.
Some companies have also eyed projects to liquefy and ship natural gas around the globe. The federal government recently gave approval to three LNG export projects, including the Cameron LNG project in southwestern Louisiana and Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass project, which is nearing completion along the Louisiana-Texas border. A joint venture of Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum International is awaiting approval from the federal government to build and operate a LNG export plant at its existing terminal at Sabine Pass.
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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 universities and colleges statewide. Funding from TEES and the Qatar campus provided initial support for the center, but the system expects the project to be fully self-sufficient after three years through federal grants and industry partnerships.
Beyond research, the center also aims to train highly skilled engineers and technical staff for work in gas processing fields, a significant move in Qatar where large multinational companies like Shell and ExxonMobil largely employ workers from outside of the country.
The government has been trying to boost the number of Qatari nationals in the workforce, including establishing new universities like Texas A&M at Qatar. The Gas and Fuels Research 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, where such technology is now being introduced to the market, according to A&M’s proposal.
“The needs of the state of Qatar and the state of Texas are quite aligned,” El-Halwagi, said. “Texas takes pride in being the energy capital of the world and Qatar takes pride in being the gas capital of the world.”