A pearl like no other can be found not far from the Persian Gulf shores of Qatar. It is there that Shell’s Pearl gas-to-liquids plant (GTL) – the largest of its kind in the world – stands as a testament to the spirit of innovative design and constructive teamwork.

The plant is located in Ras Laffan, a vast industrial zone on Qatar’s coast 90 km (56 miles) north of Doha. With the shipment of its first product in 2011, the plant took its first step toward becoming the world’s largest source of GTL products. Pearl’s design capacity is 140,000 b/d of GTL products and 120,000 b/d of NGL and ethane.

Shell has been developing GTL technology since the 1970s, with its first commercial GTL plant in Bintulu, Malaysia, commencing operations in 1993.

At the heart of the company’s GTL plants is the proprietary middle distillate synthesis process. According to Shell, its GTL process consists of three stages. In the first stage synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, is manufactured from natural gas by partial oxidation, and impurities are removed. A second stage converts the synthesis gas into liquid hydrocarbons using a catalyst, forming a liquid that looks and feels like wax at room temperature. The final stage is cracking and isomerization, which “cuts” the molecule chains into shorter lengths, yielding high-quality liquids.

Pearl GTL is expected to process around 3 Bboe over its lifetime from the North field in the Arabian Gulf, according to Shell. The offshore component of the project includes 22 development wells, two unmanned wellhead platforms in approximately 30 m (98 ft) of water, and two 30-in. pipelines running about 60 km (37 miles) to shore.

“It is a truly integrated project,” Hilary Mercer, vice president of integrated gas projects for Shell, told reporters at a recent press event at the company’s technology center in Amsterdam. “In the past we’ve tended to do projects that played to one of the specific strengths of the company. Pearl is completely integrated. It has offshore platforms, ‘midstream’ or feed gas preparation facilities, and refinery technology on the back end to make the products.” The plant site spans an area equivalent to 35 football pitches; plant construction used physical and social engineering techniques to reach completion. “Pearl was a major engineering feat,” Mercer said. “The amount of structural steel erected each month in the construction of the plant was equivalent to 2.5 Eiffel towers. There were 13,000 km [8,078 miles] of cable used in the construction, which is enough to stretch from Doha to Houston.” It takes people to build projects, and for Pearl, it took 500 million man-hours, according to Mercer. “At its peak we had over 50,000 people working on the site,” she said.

For all of Pearl’s impressive stats, it is its safety record during construction that is most impressive. The project set a new onshore record for Shell of 77 million hours lost-time-incident-free and 270 million km (167,770,639 miles) driven without a serious incident. These stats were accomplished through a concern for worker wellbeing, which in turn led to the development of a culture where workers “wanted” to be safe rather than being “told” to be safe.