The project, to develop the Gorgon and Jansz-Io gas fields between 130 and 220 kilometers off the northwest coast of Western Australia, includes the construction of a 15.6 million tonne per annum liquefied natural gas plant on Barrow Island and a domestic gas plant with the capacity to supply 300 terajoules of gas per day to WA.
More than a thousand kilometres from the gas fields, Professor Eric May from The University of Western Australia (UWA) has led a small team of scientists in a series of global breakthroughs on the behaviour of gases and liquids - discoveries set to help optimise the way LNG is produced.
Funded by Chevron and the Australian Research Council, the initiative has brought together some of the foremost researchers in the field and required commissioning and construction of world leading high-pressure experimental equipment in the UWA laboratories.
For Professor May, an expert on the thermodynamics and measurement of fluid properties, particularly those relevant to gas processing and LNG production, the timing was good.
“The oil and gas activity in the northwest of WA is very much on a global scale,” he said. “With six major projects currently under construction, Australia will be the world’s second largest LNG exporter by 2020, producing 60-100 million tonnes per annum.
“To capitalise on this resource we need effective and safe technology and part of this is how well operators can simulate or predict how an LNG plant is going to perform in terms of separating out the various components of the natural gas stream.”
Beginning back in 2007, UWA researchers focused on the cryogenic distillation tower at the heart of an LNG plant, known as the ‘scrub column’.
“The column is designed to prevent significant concentrations of compounds heavier than ethane from entering the main cryogenic heat exchange where liquefaction occurs, before the LNG is then de-pressurised and sent to storage,” Professor May said.
“If gas leaves the top part of the scrub column with trace heavy hydrocarbons at too high a concentration, these heavier compounds can freeze out and block the narrow tubing networks in the cryogenic heat exchanger, causing unplanned shutdowns with severe consequences in terms of time and money.”
It is possible to drive the scrub column to prevent this from happening but it requires the use of extra power. Predicting the concentrations of heavy hydrocarbons leaving the top of the scrub column is especially difficult as the operating temperature and pressure are often near the fluid mixture’s thermodynamic critical point.
The UWA team worked to develop the state-of-the-art measurement systems needed to capture the most accurate data available on the behaviour of fluid mixtures under these conditions.
“The data was then used to construct more accurate and efficient models of fluid properties inside the scrub column,” Professor May said.
The advance will not only enable LNG operators to avoid expensive delays but will also provide engineers with the knowledge needed to lower the energy required to produce the LNG, reducing the environmental footprint of such major developments.
It’s been rewarding work for the recipient of the 2010 WA Early Career Scientist Award and the 2012 Prime Minister’s Award for Physical Scientist of the Year, who is also the Chevron Chair of Gas Processing at UWA.
“At the beginning, you are never sure exactly how you’re going to overcome the seemingly monumental challenges,” Professor May said.
“This project has become increasingly enjoyable and rewarding as we’ve gone from very fundamental science to an outcome that’s very applied. UWA is now looking at building a micro scale replica LNG plant for research, training and education at UWA that will be unique in the world.”
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