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Gulf-Times: Shell plant in Bintulu shines as GTL pioneer

Published: Sunday, 8 July, 2007, 02:03 AM Doha Time  
Royal Dutch Shell had recently taken a group of journalists to visit their first gas-to-liquids plant in Bintulu, Malaysia. Gulf Times’ Leonard H Manickam was one of the two journalists from Qatar who made the trip. He writes about the ‘founding capital of the GTL world’ and Pearl GTL, which is set to propel  Qatar as the new GTL capital of the world.

As Qatar positions itself to become the GTL capital of the world in a few years’ time, the first-ever gas-to-liquids plant – the Shell MDS Malaysia – will be pushed a little further into history, but not to be forgotten.

The Shell MDS (middle distillate synthesis) plant in Bintulu, which opened in 1993, took over 20 years of research and a proprietary synthesis catalyst to produce the cleanest of fuels and specialty chemicals using GTL technology. The project claimed its place in history as the world’s first full-scale GTL plant.

SMDS Malaysia is an operating company of the Royal Dutch Shell group with its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Bintulu, in Serawak State, is about two-and-a-half-hour flight away from the capital city.

Shell’s partners in the Bintulu venture are Petronas of Malaysia, Diamond Gas Holdings (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp) and the Serawak State Government.

Initial capitalisation was $850mn. Gas fields in the South China Sea offshore of Bintulu provide the input for SMDS Malaysia.

The GTL process has been around since the 1920s and was known as the Fischer-Tropsch technology. Shell has managed to near-perfect the technology thanks to their invention of a unique synthesis catalyst that is only available to the Anglo-Dutch company. Shell is thus by far the leader in the GTL business.

The SMDS plant in Bintulu produces 14,700 bpd equivalent of high quality liquid products including naphtha, kerosene, gasoil, detergent feedstock and waxes.
Virtually free of sulphur, nitrogen and aromatics, the SMDS products are colourless, odourless, highly bio-degradable and environmentally friendly.

The quantity may be small by today’s standards but the quality of the products is what makes the Bintulu project the best of its kind and also the most sought after.

Shell has also developed alternative automotive fuels that have been tested for their ultra-clean properties. Shell GTL fuel – a semi-synthetic diesel – was launched in 2002 in Thailand, making it the first Asian country to use the fuel that offered greater engine performance and significant emission reduction.

The next year, Shell launched a blend of standard diesel, Shell GTL fuel and special additives in Greece, which went on to become the official fuel of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

SMDS technology converts natural gas to long chain paraffins, which are subsequently either hydrocracked to produce liquid fuels or fractionated to produce chemical feedstocks and waxes.

The use of non-associated natural gas as feedstock and the high selectivity of the conversion process ensure a consistency of quality unmatched by equivalent products derived from crude oil.

SMDS process incorporates state-of-the-art safety, energy conservation and environmental protection systems. The plant itself is so completely integrated that the only incoming raw material is natural gas and the only outgoing waste products are water and flue gas, which are regulated by highly efficient waste water treatment and flare system.

Even as the world reflects on global warming and the greenhouse effect, GTL process offers perhaps the best solution with lowest emission possible. In fact, emission is no factor at all – right from the production stage to the end-use. With wastage kept at the absolute minimum, the Bintulu plant has been the most economical to run and profit-making to the state as well as the company. The State of Serawak also gains from the jobs created; about 95% of the workforce is indigenous.

SMDS Malaysia products that are marketed globally include naphtha used as a cracker feedstock for the manufacture of ethylene. Kerosene from the plant, with its superior combustion properties and low emission is used in gasoil blending as well as ethylene cracker feed in combination with naphtha.

The low density gasoil, which is virtually free of sulphur and aromatics, is marketed as Shell GTL fuel across the world to blend and produce premium diesel.
Shell GTL fuels have undergone stringent tests in many leading countries including the fleet trial of 25 Volkswagen cars in Berlin in May 2003 and trial runs with a Daimler Chrysler bus, operating on 100% Shell GTL fuel, in Central London (July-September 2003).

In Qatar, it was the official fuel for the 15th Asian Games Doha, 2006. National carrier Qatar Airways has stated that it would be the first to fly its aircraft on GTL fuel.
Other products that SMDS Malaysia is famous for include detergent feedstocks that are mainly used in washing liquid formulations and as plasticisers for the polymer industry.

The waxy raffinate is used to produce base oil of high viscosity, which goes into the making of premium automotive engine oils.

Shell MDS also produces solvents for use in metal working and dry cleaning. Its drilling fluids are commonly used across the world by multinational exploration and production companies as well as others offering drilling fluids services.

One of the major outputs from SMDS Malaysia has been speciality waxes. They are highly in demand for use in a range of products such as hot melt adhesives, printing inks, cable fillings, match sticks, corrugated boards, fibre boards, and PVC lubricants.

The white waxes are ideal for applications requiring colour additives like crayons, candles and other decorative uses including graphic arts materials. Yet another variety is used for indirect food contact products like wrappings. These have been certified by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA). The waxes come in slabs, granules as well as in liquid form.

Shell officials say: “That is not all. There’s plenty more where all these come from. We are still finding out what else we can do with the GTL technology that is available to us.”

SMDS Malaysia has been “the showcase of Shell’s GTL technology to the world”, says Jon Chadwick, executive vice president, Asia, Shell Gas & Power.

In Qatar, Pearl GTL managing director and country chairman Andrew Brown had said recently” “Shell’s first GTL plant in Bintulu is making profits. The plant, though small compared to Pearl GTL, gives us information every day on how to operate a GTL plant. It gives us the confidence to make this huge investment here in Qatar.”
Chadwick, in Bintulu, is in synchronisation. “We have learnt a lot of lessons from SMDS Malaysia and we keep doing so. This is what is taking us to other, newer frontiers”.

With Pearl GTL on schedule for a 2010 opening, Ras Laffan (the site of the plant) will overtake all comers in the gas-to-liquids sector, but Bintulu will always be remembered as the founding capital of the GTL world. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

1 Comment on “Gulf-Times: Shell plant in Bintulu shines as GTL pioneer”

  1. #1 aishah m. ali
    on Mar 20th, 2008 at 03:51

    Just a small comment ….the spelling of the Malaysian Borneo state is Sarawak and not Serawak. Thanks!

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