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All Aboard the LNG Train

Bechtel and partner ConocoPhillips pace worldwide growth of liquefied natural gas
Photographs by Ron Levine, Getty and courtesy Atlantic LNG

In the 1967 film The Graduate, young Benjamin Braddock gets this career guidance from a colleague of his father: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. 'Plastics.'" If they remake that movie anytime soon, the advice could be "LNG."

With demand for energy rising faster than production of natural gas in North America, the United States may soon join the growing number of nations embracing liquefied natural gas as a clean, efficient, affordable alternative to natural gas delivered through pipelines.

 LNG is natural gas that's been compressed by refrigeration to a temperature of minus 161 degrees Celsius. The liquid occupies 600 times less space than natural gas in its gaseous state, making it practical to ship by ocean tanker. And it's stable and safe, because even though compressed in volume, the liquid remains at normal atmospheric pressure.

Currently a fleet of more than 130 specially built tankers transport LNG from production sites in locations where large gas discoveries have been made, such as Algeria, Indonesia, Trinidad, Venezuela, Nigeria, Norway, Qatar, Australia and Oman. At the receiving end, the liquid is regassified at import terminals and used to fuel power plants.

Worldwide, LNG is the fastest-growing segment of the energy market. Its use is growing at a 6- to 7-percent annual, clip, a rate that would double usage in 10 years. The biggest market today is Asia, where Japan consumes more than half of the world's LNG production. France and Spain are the largest importers of LNG in the European Union, and other countries are increasing their imports or making plans to construct LNG receiving terminals.

In the United States, LNG has occupied a niche in the natural gas market, but that could change if, as experts predict, supplies of natural gas fail to keep up with rapidly growing demand. "Not only is the price of natural gas higher than it once was, but there's also a looming supply problem," says Amos Avidan, manager of Petroleum & Chemicals Technologies, and head of LNG research for Bechtel.

Over the past 25 years, Bechtel has built more than one third of the world's LNG production plants, and the market is now stronger than ever. The company is building new liquefaction facilities in Egypt and Australia, as well as expanding the Atlantic LNG plant on the island of Trinidad. The fourth production train there, currently under construction, will be the largest in the world with an annual capacity of 5.2 million tonnes.

At the heart of Bechtel's success in the LNG market is its partnership with ConocoPhillips, creator of the Phillips Optimized Cascade LNG Process. The process uses three refrigeration phases involving propane, ethylene, and methane to progressively cool the gas.

Bechtel first used the process in a liquefaction plant it built for Phillips Petroleum on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, which has been producing LNG for the Japanese market continuously since 1969. The optimized cascade process has been used for all four trains at Atlantic LNG, and both the Egypt and Australian projects are being modeled after the Trinidad designs.

 "Trinidad is a benchmark for the industry," says Bechtel Project Manager Errol Rapp. "The Phillips Optimized Cascade LNG Process, and the equipment it requires, set standards for efficient and clean liquefaction and showed that low-cost LNG production is feasible."

In 1996, Bechtel and ConocoPhillips took their working relationship to the next stage, forming an alliance aimed at expanding their share in the LNG market. As part of the deal, they established an LNG Product Development Center at Bechtel's Houston office. There, employees from both companies are working on new technologies. "All of our LNG technology innovations come out of this center," says Avidan.

One goal is to develop technology for plants with more than twice the production capacity of today's facilities (which between 3 million and 4 million tonnes per year). In fact, the center has a design for a 7.5-million tonne "megatrain" that could be incorporated in a Bechtel project now in the development stage.

If the United States is to jump on the LNG train, it's going to need terminals where the stuff can be received and turned back into natural gas. Currently there are just four working import terminals in the continental United States: at Everett, Massachusetts (in Boston Harbor), Lake Charles, Louisiana, at Elba Island, Georgia and at Cove Point, Maryland.

Bechtel, which built the Elba Island terminal in the 1970s, is actively exploring the market for new terminals. "We have the technology and we're very interested," says Avidan, noting that more than 30 proposals have been made to build import terminals in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

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