8 technology breakthroughs that may change the energy landscape

Last edited: 26 November 2015

What are some of the emerging technologies that have the potential to transform the way energy is produced and used? And what might they mean for BP and the energy industry as a whole?

None of us has a crystal ball to see what the future will look like. What we can be sure of though is that the world is changing rapidly and our lives will be very different by 2050. From mobility to healthcare, communications to education, as Bill Gates has put it: “Innovation is moving at a scarily fast pace.”

Individuals and industries alike will need to adapt to these new developments, to make the most of opportunities. As BP launches its first Technology Outlook, group chief executive Bob Dudley says: “In the corporate world, history tells us that companies that fail to anticipate or adapt to new technologies fail to survive. On the other hand, companies with leading technologies are often the most competitive and successful.” 

Emerging technologies present business risks and opportunities for any industry. The energy sector is no exception. Although radical innovation and disruption in this industry are relatively infrequent, transformational change can take place – often within relatively short timeframes and with dramatic consequences. 

So, what are some of the future trends and innovations that may make an impact on the world of energy? BP’s emerging technology manager, Dan Walker, highlights eight breakthroughs that might be significant. This is what the future may look like…

1. Quantum leap: beyond silicon computing

Why?

Unlike some other emerging technology areas where progress is less certain, computing innovation is set to continue at the rapid pace we’ve already witnessed. Back in 1970, Moore’s Law predicted that overall processing power for computers would roughly double every two years – and that has generally continued to hold true. Even if the pace of change slows, new applications provide ongoing potential for digitization to transform the way people live and work, as smart-phones have demonstrated. 

The next leap in computing technology looks set to be based on quantum mechanics – the science of atomic structure and function. Quantum computing uses the ‘qubit’, or quantum bit, which can hold an infinite number of values.

Today?

Exponential increases in the power and speed of computers – along with decreasing costs – are already having a significant impact on the energy business, and beyond. As the complexity of technology has evolved, we’ve turned to intricate algorithms to process, model and analyse data. This already requires massive computing power: at BP, we opened our High-Performance Computing Center in Houston, US, two years ago. It’s home to one of the world’s largest supercomputers for commercial research – with a total memory of 1,000 terabytes and disk space of 23.5 petabytes, the equivalent of more than 40,000 average laptop computers. The centre serves as a worldwide hub to process and manage massive amounts of geophysical data, helping our scientists to ‘see’ more clearly what lies beneath the Earth’s surface.

Tomorrow?

Quantum technologies have the potential to process huge data sets at faster rates than today’s silicon-based, digital computers can. They use electrons, or even polarized light, that can be interlinked to perform many operations at once. While currently at an embryonic stage of development, these technologies have been identified as having significant potential.

2. Number crunching: data analytics

Why?

The volume of data in the world is growing at an unprecedented rate. Even the vocabulary used to describe it has to expand to keep up; where once it was ‘Megabyte’, terms such as ‘Yottabyte’ now exist. To put it in perspective, it would take approximately 11 trillion years to download a Yottabyte file from the internet using high-power broadband. These are the type of volumes that we may be dealing with in the decades to come.

But data only becomes useful when it can be handled properly; the mathematical treatment of data – or analytics – helps companies to make faster, better and more focused business decisions in a world where the quantity of data could become overwhelming.

Today?

In the energy industry, increased use of sensors and real-time data acquisition has already seen exponential growth in the volume, variety and velocity of data gathered from operations. For example, BP is using big data analytics technology to screen huge geoscience data sets – in a project for the UK North Sea, data from 5,000 wells was analysed in just a few seconds, whereas a 100-well dataset would normally take a geologist a month to analyse.

Tomorrow?

The potential to process and analyse big data in seconds, rather than months, will continue to open up vast opportunities: for BP and others, it may revolutionise the drilling of oil and gas wells, optimise production and enhance the overall performance of operations. In short, the future lies in gathering these huge volumes of data, understanding it to draw useful insights and then optimizing our business activities as a result. This is commonly referred to as the industrial internet of things – where the integration of complex machinery with networked sensors and software allows industry to capture and analyse data and use it to optimise operations.

3. Super-charged: better batteries for vehicles

Why?

Today’s car manufacturers are juggling competing demands for their latest models: customers want fewer emissions, along with improved fuel efficiency. Battery technologies may provide the answers for both.

Today?

Battery technology for transportation is already advancing, with particular progress in reliability, costs, safety and capacity for enhanced range. In turn, these developments are having an impact on the forecast production of electric vehicles, as the technology allows batteries to become more competitive with the internal combustion engine.

Tomorrow?

Next-generation batteries, such as rechargeable lithium sulphur batteries, are expected to increase energy capacity threefold by 2025, as well as reduce vehicle weight and cost. Continued development is supported by regulatory pressures for greater fuel economy and lower tailpipe emissions. 

Significant improvements in battery technology would increase the use of hybrid and electric vehicles, thereby also influencing future fossil fuel demand in the transport sector. BP’s models suggest that combined hybrid and battery/electric vehicle sales may account for 10% of global sales by 2023-4. Furthermore, projections show that the cost of running an electric vehicle which uses battery power will fall from 26.2 US cents per kilometre in 2012, to 14.3 cents in 2050.

4. I, robot: automation via robotics

Why?

Automation may affect many aspects of life in the years to come. For the energy industry specifically, applications may include deploying robots to inspect difficult-to-access elements such as offshore risers, and piloting unmanned aerial systems – or drones – into areas that are challenging for human intervention. But, automation is also likely to become a staple of everyday life. Self-driving - or autonomous – vehicles are just one example: they could shake up the transportation sector in a big way, with impacts on consumers, energy consumption and information technology. As Dr Steven Griffiths of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology puts it: “It’s going to change the way we live.” 

Today?

Research and development in the automation sphere has gained traction in recent years, with technology giants such as Google and vehicle manufacturers such as Mercedes leading the efforts. In fact, Google’s self-driving prototype cars have already notched up more than one million miles on the roads of Mountain View, California, and Austin, Texas. Elsewhere, partially-autonomous vehicles are making their way to market and many modern cars have automated mechanisms for specific functions. 

Tomorrow?

High levels of automation are not expected in the very near future, but at least one car manufacturer has stated they will have a fully autonomous vehicle available by 2025. Experts predict that a decade after that, a large fraction of the car market will be at least partially autonomous.

However, these predictions don’t allow any precise evaluation of the final impact of this technology on transport fuel demand or the future fuel mix. Automation is likely to have varying effects on the cost of transport, congestion, car ownership models and travel mileage, but nevertheless the technology does offer the possibility of fundamentally changing the transportation sector.
Image credit: Google

5. Off the grid: fuel cells

Why?

Fuel cells rely on hydrogen as their energy source, so this technology goes hand-in-hand with the development of infrastructure and storage of hydrogen [see #6]. Fuel cells offer more efficient electricity generation, compared to combustion methods, with fewer emissions generated when the hydrogen is generated from low-carbon sources. Fuel-cell vehicles typically have a potential range up to 500 kilometres, which would alleviate some of the ‘range anxiety’ inherent with today’s battery-powered electric vehicles. 

Today?

The ‘stationary’ sector has led technology developments to date, with limited trials in transport. Stationary fuel cells could offer a competitive alternative to battery systems, in areas such as telecoms, back-up systems and auxiliary power units.
Fuel cell electric vehicles are also gaining popularity among automotive manufacturers, as they offer an acceptable driving range and competitive fuel economy. However, the technology remains expensive – currently around four times the cost of a conventional vehicle.

Tomorrow?

Despite some momentum in advances, the development of this technology – and the associated hydrogen infrastructure – face a number of challenges, including how to produce hydrogen in bulk, at a low cost and from a low-carbon source. There are also questions as to how highly-combustible hydrogen can be safely carried in vehicles, as well as how to develop an efficient and cost-effective refuelling infrastructure. If these factors could be overcome, fuel cells would have the potential to significantly change the energy mix of the transport sector.

6. The first element: hydrogen infrastructure and storage

Why?

Hydrogen may offer a variety of uses as a low-carbon, renewable high-energy source. Those uses include as an efficient energy storage method or in transport applications (for example, in fuel cells, as above) as an alternative to hydrocarbons, with its zero exhaust emissions. 

Today?

Hydrogen is produced at scale to create ammonia for use in fertilizers, as well as in the processing of crude oil to break it down into refined products. The current technology relies on natural gas as the feedstock to make hydrogen – alternative methods to produce it from low-carbon sources, such as solar or wind power, are at varying stages of development.

Currently, hydrogen storage relies on compression and liquefaction, with industrial-scale facilities today in underground salt caverns and aquifers, which demand large energy input and offer little scope for long-term improvements. 

Tomorrow?

Developing economically viable, low-carbon sources of hydrogen faces many technical challenges. For hydrogen to play a significant role as a transport fuel, a suitable storage mechanism also needs to be developed. With the right advances in production and infrastructure though, hydrogen technologies may have a considerable impact on the fuel mix in the power and transport sectors.

7. Empire of the sun: next-generation solar conversion

Why?

By 2050, the International Energy Agency forecasts that solar photovoltaic technology could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity. It also predicts that solar thermal electricity could provide another 11% on top of that. So, photovoltaic energy remains a promising emerging technology.

Today?

Over the past six years, solar modules have reduced in cost by some 80%. However, these technologies remain very capital intensive, with the majority of expenditure required upfront. Statistics from BP’s Technology Outlook show that in 2012, utility-scale solar photovoltaic technology was the most expensive way of generating electricity in North America, compared to seven other sources, including onshore wind, nuclear and coal.

Tomorrow?

Current solar cells are mainly made of silicon-based materials. Breakthrough technologies such as perovskite (a compound containing earth-abundant minerals) solar cells are evolving. Along with improved designs that convert a higher percentage of light than today’s solar cells, these technologies promise higher efficiencies, lower cost and flexibility in application. In addition, improvements in biotechnology are likely to improve agricultural performance, enhancing the efficiency and scale of solar conversion to biomass.  

Overall advances in this area may affect natural gas usage for electricity generation, as well as accelerate electrification in the transport sector.

8. Attack of the clones: 3D printing

Why?

In the seemingly short time it has been with us, 3D printing has raised a number of new possibilities, from palaeontologists making replicas of dinosaur bones to would-be designers creating their own plastic shoes. For industry, the prospect of low-cost printing of customized parts – in a range of materials – gives the technique plenty of potential. 

Today?

Until now, the technology has mainly been used for prototyping. However, production of complex, tailored parts at a low volume is on the increase, in fields such as aerospace, for example. 

Tomorrow?

The oil and gas industry – and many others – see opportunities to use this technology, especially to produce parts on-demand in a specific material. For example, 3D printers on an offshore facility may mean complex components can be manufactured in remote locations, saving time and improving efficiency. Uses of 3D printing is set to grow over the next 10 years as applications are identified and opportunities arise with new materials and equipment.

Related content