By Koichi Washimi, published on April 16th, 2018, modified on April 23rd, 2018
I joined Elf Aquitaine Tokyo office in 1994, right after retirement from Toyo Engineering Corporation. Since that time, the name of the company changed so often from elf Aquitaine to TotalFinaElf, and finally to TOTAL due to the merger of the different oil companies in France and Belgium.
During my service in Elf and TotalFinaElf, I belonged to Direction Scientifique (DS) Division under Dr. Claude Jablon, Chief Scientist, and Dr. Francis Lecroisey, a former representative of DS in Japan. I remember Francis was a really good man, we still exchange Christmas cards even now.
After Francis left Japan Office, I was appointed as an exclusive consultant to elf. My responsibility included personal management, general organization and logistics, budget and accounting as well as information system and methods.
My major activities at that time were
(1) to select a proper professor of Japanese university who accepts French student, mostly in the Graduate School, under sponsorship of Elf DS, and to give necessary advice to the student for his daily life in Japan. There were always three or four such students and I remember that I often spent a pleasant time discussing with those young French students.
(2) According to the requests from various Elf divisions, coordinate contacts with suitable Japanese companies and sometimes organize and receive elf missions to the Japanese company and vice versa.
(3) Always watch development news of the technologies in Japanese industry of particular interests for Elf, and report regularly to each concerned elf division and research centers.
(4) Besides those activities in home office, I was invited by Elf DS to visit Elf headquarter in Paris and research centers in various locations in France and Belgium, once or twice a year, to exchange information and discuss with research people to update their interests in various projects ongoing in Japan and Europe. This trip normally took one or two weeks, but it was really a pleasant opportunity for me.
My counterpart in Elf DS in France was Dr. Jacques Bousquet. We sometimes had a trip together to meet people in various research centers. In some weekend, he invited me in his home in Lyon and we spent a pleasant time with his family.
In 2002, Mr. Hubert de Mestier, General Manager of TOTAL Trading International Tokyo Branch at that time, was strongly interested in a development project of a new clean fuel, DME (dimethylether), being conducted by a consortium of Japanese energy-related companies. JFE (the second largest steel mill in Japan) was the process owner and the leader of the project. They built a 100 ton/day DME demonstration plant in Kushiro, Hokkaido, supported by the Japanese government subsidy.
TOTAL decided to join this project and participated in the consortium as a sole foreign oil company. As I was assigned as technical advisor for this project by TOTAL Gas & Power division, I left Elf DS and joined TOTAL Tokyo office under Mr. H. de Mestier. Our counterpart in Paris for this project was Mr. J-F Rondenay (GE/BD/ASIE).
DME is conventionally produced commercially in a relatively small scale in two steps; methanol production from natural gas followed by dehydration of methanol which is a commodity chemical.
The feature of the new JFE’s DME production process was a single step production of DME from natural gas by directly combining natural gas reforming and liquid phase reaction of the reformed gas in a single reactor.
The main activity of the DME consortium when TOTAL participated was the test runs of the demo-plant in Kushiro to prove its stable operation, and to obtain performance data of the process. Those test runs were repeated several times with on-stream time of a week or more. I used to attend most of the test runs, and my impression throughout those test runs was that the process was fairly stable without any serious trouble. My technical counterpart in Gas & Power was Mr. P. Herrenschmidt who also visited Kushiro demo-plant several times and it was always my pleasure to have a good discussion with him.
By that time, the process development for conversion of natural gas to a clean liquid fuel became a worldwide interest under the name of “Gas to Liquid“ or “GTL”. Other oil majors like Exxon Mobil and Shell were aggressively competing with each other for commercialization of such process and announced construction of a large scale GTL plants in Qatar where natural gas was most abundantly produced.
In March 2005, when the 5th Natural Gas Conference was held by Qatar Petroleum in Doha, I was invited to give a presentation on “DME development in Japan – a technical and economic evaluation”. The presentation caused surprisingly a strong interest in DME in the conference. A local newspaper reported as headline news about DME development in Japan with participation of TOTAL. I was also interviewed by well-known TV media, Aljazeera, and this was aired on TV next day. However, Qatar Petroleum was rather prudent against DME, partly because they were concentrating in GTL at that time.
For this presentation in Doha, I was awarded a Communication Prize 2005 by TOTAL Gas & Power (see attached photo with Mr. Y-L Darricarrère, VP, Gas and Power in the ceremony).
JFE was first considering to construct a large scale commercial DME plant in Japan. Many efforts were paid to involve potential user of DME such as independent power companies and car manufacturers.
But unfortunately this was not realized so far, because of the insufficient potential market of DME. Recently, the trends of future car fuel is towards hydrogen or electricity.