AP Business Writer
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Qatar Airways is claiming its place in history by operating the world's first commercial flight using fuel made from natural gas, creating a potential new source of aircraft fuel for the future.
The jet fuel, made using a "gas-to-liquids" process developed by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, helped power an Airbus A340-600 from London Gatwick that landed in the Qatari capital Doha on Monday evening.
"Qatar's position as the GTL capital of the world has been further enhanced with today's achievement," Abdulla bin Hamad al-Attiyah, the country's deputy prime minister of energy and industry, said in a statement. "Commercial aviation is one of the exciting new markets that this opens up, helping us maximize the value from our natural resources."
Qatar boasts some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, much of which lie in an underwater pocket it shares with nearby Iran.
The tiny Persian Gulf state, an OPEC member, and its international oil industry partners are investing billions of dollars to boost the country's ability to export 77 million tons of liquefied natural gas mostly aboard ships.
The jet fuel project opens a new potential market for Qatar's gas.
Shell made the fuel using a half-and-half mixture of regular jet fuel and synthetic kerosene made by converting natural gas into liquid form. It has been working on GTL projects for more than three decades.
Qatar hopes to become the top producer of liquid kerosene made from natural gas once commercial production begins in 2012.
The airline worked with Airbus, engine maker Rolls-Royce, Shell and state-owned Qatar Petroleum to develop the aircraft fuel blend.
It said the mixture could improve local air quality at airports by cutting down on some emissions.
Kenneth Yeasting, senior director at energy advisory IHS CERA Senior Director, said he wouldn't be surprised if the natural gas jet fuel burned more cleanly than the regular oil-based variety, but added that the environmental benefit is "probably not huge."
Several airlines have experimented with alternative fuels.
South African has powered its airline industry for a decade using a coal-based jet fuel blend. Boeing has worked with carriers including Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic to test biofuels made from different vegetable oils.
But high production costs mean Qatar's new fuel is unlikely to seriously challenge existing jet fuel any time soon.
"The capital costs are still a concern ... It's pretty expensive to convert natural gas even if you have a low cost feedstock" like Qatar has, Yeasting said.