Micro-LNG – On the Shoulder of Giants

The famous Isaac Newton, and many influential people before him, stated the aphorism that dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants are able to see even further than giants themselves. After decades of giant’s domination within the LNG market, mid, small-scale and even micro-LNG plants are turning into the hope of a generation – to maintain security of supply, investment and innovation. And all locally produced, in the reach to the markets.

Methane gas is easy

Methane rich gas in liquefied form is easy. Easy to produce. Easy to transport. Easy to store. Easy to convert (back into its gaseous form). And – at last – easy to produce electricity from it. No wondrous things involved.

Unfortunately, methane gas, whenever exploited or produced as biogas or even landfill gas, is seldom alone. It has company – hitchhikers, and to carry them along is not pleasant, nor recommendable.

Normally, methane gas is a simple combination of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. An easy catch! Once unleashed from their original source the wanted-quintet – together with unpleasant hitchhikers (CO2 and water to be named) – is passing through several engineering-traps, or pre-treatment facilities to unload the unwanted guests. Finally, the quintet approaches the finely-crafted metal gates – the heat exchangers. Methane enters and cold is everywhere, a grim cold, turning the quintet into liquid form. It is stored at site and ready for further use. The world of creating the tools to convert methane gas-to-liquids – the world of engineering – is less poetic due to constant focus on reliability, robustness, mitigating environmental footprints, overall energy consumption, and not to mention price. What are the costs to make the quintet cold?

Then again, cold is good, because the carbon-hydrogen alliance gets chilly, then liquid, and, more importantly, ready for transport to us – today. And to others – tomorrow! We all need energy – today, tomorrow and the day after!

Back to the giants
And the giants do what exactly again? They provide “the cold”.

The market is dominated by giants, super-sized LNG plants in the range of up to 10 million tons per year (in 2010), which can easily be increased to an enormous 20 million tons per year – there are virtually no limits for giants these days. Their planed and outlined sizes are in the sheer mega-range. Often, the attempt to describe such plants as somewhat bigger fridges, is utterly misleading. No fridge is that big nor complicated to use. Again, these things are giants – designed with cutting-edge technology in terms of engineering, planning, manufacturing, construction and operating. Does liquefaction of methane gas on a micro, small and mid-scale level follow the same challenges, difficulties and complexity as giant’s performances and security of supply (bigger is better) do?

Particularly small and micro-scale LNG technologies are dwarfs compared to their carrying hosts – the giants. But in recent years cheaper yet robust and reliable technologies are easily available. And the demand for methane gas is growing.

Mature giants and growing-up dwarfs
Even giants started small. Every new technology upheaval or breakthrough lead to another generation and the race continued towards more powerful and complicated machinery to produce LNG. Today we are facing the latest generation of base-load LNG plants.

In 2008 some 20 base-load LNG plants in 16 countries can be identified worldwide. In 2020, it’s firmly believed that almost 30% of Western Europe’s natural gas consumption will be supplied by LNG, mainly produced by base-load LNG plants. If so, another 70% of Europe’s natural gas consumption must be supplied otherwise. Major natural gas pipelines are distributing natural gas from Eastern-Europe and thus contributing substantially towards keeping the supply secured. Is this enough? Possible not. Methane-to-liquids-applications on small or even micro-scale may help to cover energy supply in time of great demand with methane gas supply from biogas, landfill gas or flare gas. An integrated industry where giants will peacefully coexist with dwarfs all around them.

Around the corner
Natural gas infrastructures and strategies are shifting towards an “integrated or total-solutions-market”, strongly focusing on bringing methane-to-markets. And the market is just around the corner! More importantly, long-time neglected candidates for methane-to-liquids-applications are recruited from local biogas, landfill gas, or even flare gas sources.

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