An Airline Fleet Fueled by Natural Gas


At the end of next year, Qatar Airways is scheduled to open a new airport that will include a 25-meter swimming pool and squash courts, among other amenities. But it will also be extraordinary from an energy standpoint because it will pump airline fuel made from natural gas.

Qatar has relatively little oil and vast supplies of natural gas. Oil goes on tankers to distant destinations, but moving natural gas is much harder for the Persian Gulf emirate. So Royal Dutch/Shell built a gas-to-liquids plant called Pearl that makes a variety of liquid fuels.

Qatar is not quite the first out of the box with this approach. That would be South Africa, which was driven to make liquids from coal in the days when its apartheid regime faced trade sanctions and the country could not import oil.Now the country makes diesel and jet fuel from coal because it makes economic sense.

Liquids from coal and from natural gas are similar because the first step in either process is to turn the hydrocarbon fuel into a gas consisting of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. From there, further chemical processing yields hydrogen and carbon combinations that are liquid at room temperature.

In South Africa’s case, environmentalists are horrified because such fuels have a bigger carbon footprint than fuel from ordinary oil because of all the extra processing involved. In fact, it is like an extreme version of the tar sands of Alberta, which Canada turns into a crude oil that environmentalists have been trying to keep out of the United States.

Visiting Washington on Wednesday, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, asserted that the fuel is easier on the environment than jet fuel made from petroleum. First, it has no sulfur and thus does not produce sulfur dioxide, which is a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide when emitted at low altitudes. (This is tricky: at higher altitudes, sulfur dioxide reflects sunlight back into space and thus in theory combats global warming.)

Second, the jet fuel from natural gas has slightly more energy per pound than jet fuel from petroleum, so flying a given distance requires fewer pounds of fuel. And the lighter the fuel, the greater the fuel economy, he said.

The airline has four aircraft with Rolls Royce engines, and Rolls has approved the use of the fuel. The carrier has 110 aircraft with General Electric engines, and Mr. Al Baker said that it was still awaiting formal approval from G.E. Rolls may have been faster because it supplies engines to Britain’s Royal Air Force, and the R.A.F. conducted an early study of the synthetic fuel produced by South Africa.

A G.E. spokesman, Rick Kennedy, said the company had already signed off on using the fuel in G.E. engines, however. Engines running on the fuel require less maintenance because they do not produce sulfur dioxide, he said, but the company does not see an advantage when it comes to reducing heat-trapping emissions related to global warming. Still, because the fuel is lighter, “you get a better fuel burn,’’ he said, which results in lower consumption.

A Boeing spokesman, Terrance Scott, said the fuel performs similarly to traditional fossil-based fuels. The company has shown more enthusiasm for innovation in bio-based fuels, though.

The process of making fuel from natural gas “is extremely costly, energy-intensive and has life-cycle issues” that negate some of the benefits from pursuing sustainable fuel options for the broader aviation market,’’ Mr. Scott said. “Qatar has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, so they have been pushing for innovative uses for it,” he noted, and “this is one example that makes sense in that region of the world.’’

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways is lamenting the European Union’s taxes on carbon dioxide emissions by foreign carriers that fly in and out of its airports. Qatar has moved some of its power plants to burn natural gas instead of oil, Mr. Al Baker said, and as a result can assign some carbon credits to the airline.

But he said he was rooting for the United States, which has taken an aggressive stand against the airline carbon taxes in a long-running battle. “We are a small country, and we cannot get into battles with large countries like the E.U.,’’ Mr. Al Baker said.

“We will let somebody else do our battle, then benefit,’’ he said.

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