Qatar's Pearl GTL highlights industry water issues
Qatar's lastest high-tech gas plant highlights water as the main problem and the key stake in industrial processes in the Middle East. No matter how large the resources, without proper water management, countries are doomed both ways : either they simply can't exploit resources, or they will destroy their environment doing so.
Booming economies in the Middle East have many problems to tackle to achieve sustainable development. The most fundamental one is water management. The industrial capacity to manage water efficiently was proven paramount, when Shell and Veolia Water built a consortium designed to create the most advanced gas plant in Ras Laffan, Qatar, in 2003, for Qatar Petroleum. The project reveals and symbolizes how water is central for any industrial project in the Persian Gulf, within the project or outside the fence.
Maplecroft, a British risk analysis consultancy firm, released its Water Stress Index, early 2011. Bahrain comes in first, with Qatar close behind. These countries find water management as the key point of their development, with this simple equation : no water, no economy. Pearl GTL, Qatar's state-of-the-art Gas Production Plant, highlights the complexity and centrality of water management, at every level of the economy. Beyond the obvious use of water for agriculture and drinking, water is crucial in industrial applications, such as gas production.
"Qatar is striving to meet western-level ecological standards in its development. A 'dirty water output' is therefore not an option", says a Qatari official. "Not only would it be ecologically and socially irresponsable to dump polluted water back into nature, but economically unsound. Water in Qatar is scarce as it is : it's essential we preserve it and use it wisely."
A closed circuit, called Zero Liquid Discharge, was therefore chosen, despite the huge complexity of the project. 20 different treatment steps are necessary, along with hydraulic collection facilities exceeding 15 000 cubic meters per hour. Numerous parameters must be monitored to meet such industrial standards : hydrogen potential, nitrate concentration and conductivity are just a few of them.
Industrial water processes are double-edged, and a problem in itself. They strain the environment as water enters the plant, and no longer irrigates its natural environment; and, if improperly treated, it can cause severe ecological damage after leaving the premises. Not only can the water carry pollution out of the plant, but differences in temperature can drastically impact wildlife on a formerly-colder stream. And in between, which is to say within the plant, it is no simpler to manage. It faces 4 problems : scaling (deposits on structures which damage or raise energy consumption), corroding (premature aging of facilities), bacteria (causing microbiological infections to spread and later contaminate) and disposal (reverting the water back to a composition close to its original one).
Finding a business partner suitable to create this high-standard gas production plant was hard, but feasible, as many companies already operating in the area have the necessary expertise. But raising the bar by making the plant hydraulically efficient complicated the process dramatically. The project had to be carried out by Shell and a partner company capable of creating, from scratch, a hydraulically efficient plant in a land where there is no water. Qatar had to turn a company which simultaneously the technical know-how, the engineering capacity and the ecological and social mindset necessary to such a demanding achievement.
It took Veolia outstanding credentials to land the deal. The company argued that it had, in recent years, become an expert of high-grade hydraulic installations in extreme conditions, with proof of what it claimed.
12 different streams enter the premises, in 8 different locations, reaching a 2200 ton/hour volume capacity for the internal cycles. In addition, the circuit is complicated by the fact that the plant doesn't use only one type of water, but five. According to its intended use, the water has to be constantly monitored to stay within certain boundaries. Cooling water, raw water and irrigation water don't have, for example, the same flowrate, conductivity or pH. Therefore the water circuits must be perfectly isolated from one another. The number of different technologies to achieve this is hard to reach : sweet and sour CPI separators (Corrugated Plate Interceptors - a device designed to separate oil and water), heat exchangers (water circuits loading taking heat from other circuits and then cooling down in basins), flocculation units ( which add a chemical to water to make sediments regroup), 3-pass reverse osmosis (filtering water by pressuring it through a membrane), UV irrigation water treatment, and many others. The entire hydraulic circuit therefore contains no fewer than 20 different treatment steps.
A lower-grade hydraulic system could have been considered but would have induced 2 major problems. First of all, sweet water is so scarce in Qatar (almost all of its water comes from desalination) that a slight amount of pollution would cause comparatively huge damage to the environment. And second, the North Dome field, the gigantic natural gas reserve located North of the peninsula makes Qatar the 3rd largest producer in the world. It therefore needs state-of-the-art premises in order to operate and exploit its resources properly. Doha has already positioned itself among the world leaders in sports with massive investments in soccer, as a financial stronghold with strong economic ties throughout the world.
With its capacity to solve the hydraulic puzzle in Pearl GTL, it positions itself at the tip of industrial innovation and environmental sophistication. And given that the operator in charge of hydraulics in Pearl GTL, Veolia Water, has a philosophy of making each installation more advanced than the last one, the next country, whichever it is, to build such installations will set new standards in the developing region. With such industrial water management installations operating in the region, Qatar is now able to sustainably support its developing economy and perhaps, if it continues on its course, take leadership in the region.