Proximity to West Florida port is key attraction for LNG equipment maker.
By Chris Dupin
The natural gas industry in the United States is booming and dozens of shipping terminals that were once looking at re-gasifying liquefied natural gas arriving on tankers are now revising their plans and converting those facilities into terminals that instead liquefy natural gas and load it onto ships or barges.
In early February, 22 companies in the United States filed plans to build gas export facilities.
The heart of any LNG plan is the heat exchanger, and the leading manufacturer of that equipment is Pennsylvania-based Air Products and Chemicals.
The company has been building these heat exchangers at a manufacturing facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for over 45 years. It completed its 100th LNG heat exchanger in July 2012.
These are big, complex pieces of equipment, some as large as 15.5 feet in diameter, 180 feet long, and weighing as much as 500 tons, and can take a couple of years to build.
A 2008 article in LNG Industry magazine, written by Air Products executives, said an exchanger consists of “one or more coil wound bundles… made up of small bore aluminum tubing, which provide a large amount of heat transfer area in a compact unit.” It added that one bundle may contain “hundreds of kilometers of tubing.”
When they’re completed, the long, cylindrical exchangers look a bit like a missile.
Moving the heat exchangers from the Lehigh Valley plant to a terminal on the Delaware River (about 120 miles away) was a complex process, sometimes taking days to cover the distance using multiple railroads, the company said.
Last year, Air Products announced it would add a second manufacturing facility for the towers in Port Manatee, Fla., which is located on Tampa Bay.
The plant “will provide additional capacity which is needed to stay ahead of the increasing market demand, and allow the manufacture of larger LNG heat exchangers around the world,” said Jim Solomon, director for LNG at the company. “Readily available port access removes the major shipping constraints we had previously faced with this larger equipment.”
The company began constructing the 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that will consist of several buildings in an area just outside the port that Manatee County calls the Florida International Gateway. Companies that locate facilities in the gateway are offered a number of incentives.
Sandy McLauchlin, general manager of Air Product’s LNG engineering and manufacturing, said last year the company intended to operate both the Florida and Pennsylvania plants “for the foreseeable future in order to meet the forecasted customer demand for LNG heat exchangers.”
While Air Products did not respond to requests for additional information, one source contacted by American Shipper said while there has been a trend toward larger LNG heat exchangers because they provide economies of scale, it was not clear if the industry would continue to demand larger equipment.
Gas purification and liquefaction plants are called “trains,” and they have increased in size, from producing 1.5 million metric tons per year in the 1970s to 7.8 million tons for recent projects in Qatar.
Steve Tyndal, senior director of trade and development at Port Manatee, said Air Products considered about seven different sites before selecting the Florida location.
“In the end, they selected us because the piece of property is directly across from the port and allows them to transport these very large pieces of equipment in a straight line without a single turn to the berth,” he said.
It will be possible to put the exchangers onto multi-wheeled trailers like those made by Germany’s Goldhofer and drive them across the street to the port where final fitting and additional piping, ladders platforms and other equipment can be added before loading on a vessel, Tyndal explained.
The plant may end up making three to eight heat exchangers annually, depending on both market demand and size of equipment, so it will create only minimal ship traffic. However, Tyndal said the plant will raise awareness of the port among heavy-lift shipping companies and create hundreds of local manufacturing jobs.
The factory is expected to open this December and eventually employ about 250 as production ramps up over the next four years.
A local county school, the Manatee Technical Institute, is developing a curriculum to help train welders who will work in the new facility.
There is other activity at Port Manatee, including:
- A new container berth to be completed in June.
- Naviera Master Line de Venezuela starting breakbulk and container service to destinations in Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Trinidad. Tyndal said the port hopes to announce a service from another Latin American carrier in the near future. Naviera was attracted to Port Manatee because of its proximity to heavy equipment auctions held in the Orlando area. The shorter distance will help reduce inland transportation costs, and the port can offer the company use of large amounts of warehouse and outdoor “laydown space” where shipments could be assembled, Tyndal said.
- The port’s effort to “reignite” interest in a “marine highway,” or short-sea barge service, between Brownsville, Texas and Port Manatee which was operated by Seabridge Freight before ending operations about two years ago. Tyndal said there was demand for the service, but Seabridge was undercapitalized. The service was particularly attractive to shippers of “heavy and slow” cargo across the Gulf of Mexico, including material originating in Monterey, Mexico, he said.