Science and technology: A meeting of minds
Why is science important to BP and the energy sector?Professor Ellen Williams:
Science has always been critical in how we discover and recover more energy resources, as well as how we produce and use them in more responsible ways. Our scientists work on everything, from reservoir chemistry and how oil, water and rock interact at their surfaces, to the conversion of energy grasses into next-generation biofuels. Good science helps us to see things differently, improve existing practices, and give us the trusted evidence we need to make sound decisions.
Dr John Pierce:
Energy can be an enormous technical undertaking, and as you go to more difficult places to get it, it creates challenging scientific and engineering problems. We try to focus our science and technology where they will make the greatest difference to BP’s businesses. When you’re in the energy business, you hear about extraordinary things over and over again, and there’s a tendency to become blasé. But, frankly, it’s amazing that one can go 100 miles out into the water, a mile-and-a-half down to the seabed, down another two or three miles through the rock to bring up hydrocarbons, and transport them across the planet, convert them, without adding a lot of cost, into high-energy fuels that can take you across the UK, for instance, on one tank.
Energy sustainability and the broad question of humanity’s use of natural resources underpins just about all the questions facing the future of our civilization. Primarily, because we have so many people on the Earth, and because they all want to improve their quality of life, we are stressing the planet. So, in everything we do as a society, we have to figure out how to meet the needs of these people and to do so without destroying our environment. The solutions are both political in terms of people’s will to address them and technical in terms of our ability to figure out how to do more with less.
Energy is coming from increasingly challenging environments. What role does science play here?Pierce:
When you’re developing new forms of energy, you may be using new technologies, so there’s a very strong connection between the scientific underpinnings and the practical engineering and technology. The world’s energy businesses have built up over time and a big service industry has developed that is capable of doing a lot of the stuff that used to be done internally. There’s a traditional view in the market that says the technology is not really that important for oil and gas companies; you just go out there in the market place and get what you need, and the way you win is through getting agreements with governments and getting access to places. We believe, however, that as you go into more challenging environments, you also need an understanding of what it’s like in these very high-temperature, high-pressure regimes. You can’t just go out and purchase the materials required. It requires a deeply rooted understanding, so my sense is I see technology having an even stronger role to play in the future.
As well as discovering more energy sources, it’s obviously important to recover more from what you have already found. What are BP scientists doing in that area?Professor Vernon Gibson:
The problem comes down to some basic chemical principles about how two very different substances, oil and water, interact with rock surfaces. It’s about understanding the nature of those interactions, the surface chemistry and physics, and how you might go about releasing the hydrocarbons from the surface of the rock. We’re getting to a place where we do understand a lot more, and are starting to see significant increases in recovery potential. That’s exciting because the value of the oil that is still locked up in the rock is incredible and it’s the fundamental science that’s going to actually release it. For example, for a long time, the industry has pumped seawater into reservoirs to push oil out. In recent years, it has been found that if you pump in lowsalinity water, you can get even more oil out. Although affording only single-figure percentage point increases in recovery of oil from the reservoir, when you bear in mind the average recovery rate across major oil company portfolios is only somewhere in the mid-30% range, a few percent on top of that translates into an awful lot of extra oil.
And what role does science play in the development of alternative energy?Williams:
BP is constantly sampling and assessing new technical approaches to producing energy and integrating different types of energy activities into our businesses. Each of those assessments has a big science and technology component. We are investing heavily in wind and biofuels, as well as taking a disciplined experimentation approach through our emerging business and ventures portfolio. We have an active low-carbon business, evaluating different types of low-carbon activities that could be integrated into the company, many of which relate to energy efficiency.
One of the Holy Grails of this century is the conversion of sunlight into liquid hydrocarbon fuels. It’s a long-term project rather than an immediate business opportunity, but it is something we’re keeping a very close eye on.
Traditionally, engineering, physics, geology and chemistry have been the backbones of energy production, but we are increasingly seeing how biology impacts that. When I came here two years ago, you could count the number of biologists at BP on one hand. Now, there are more than 100, not counting all the biofuels production work in Brazil, and we have a growing number of agronomists on staff, which is pretty amazing for an energy company.
Is it fair to say BP has brought more of its fundamental scientific research inhouse in recent years, and, if so, what’s the rationale?Gibson:
Most large corporations moved away from standalone corporate research centres 20 years ago, or restructured them. At BP, we moved a lot of responsibility for research and development [R&D] out to our operating sites. Through them, we were connected to key universities. As a result, BP became really quite good at identifying major university programmes to support our science, but it meant our internal base thinned out. So, there has been a more recent dynamic towards pulling together a critical mass – not centralising everything in one building, but making sure the depth of internal activity is appropriate to serve the interface with the universities. We’re not stopping doing the work outside, just deepening inside.
We have excellent relationships with universities across the world, but the question of how best to benefit from those relationships is a separate matter. It requires a certain amount of talent and capability within the company. For example, I am responsible for the Energy Biosciences Institute, which is a 10-year $500 million collaboration with Berkeley Labs [Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California] for 10 years. We have about half a dozen BP people, including an associate director onsite. But what really made a difference was last year when BP purchased part of a company that we had been interacting with in biofuels, called Verenium. That brought in a large number of biologists. They are in San Diego, down the road from Berkeley, so now we have a number of people with the right talents, skills and backgrounds to appreciate and interact with the academics. You can just see the value of that investment increasing as our ability to interact and engage with the academics improves.
Cutting-edge science is increasingly multidisciplinary. Is that the case within BP?Gibson:
Absolutely. Over the past three to four years, we have observed how certain areas of science connect to others and cut across all of our businesses, leading us to think deeply about the way we connect up the science base of the company. As a result, we have established five science networks, the first of which was surface science, which is about interfaces between solids, liquids and gases. It pervades a lot of what the company does, whether in oil recovery, catalysis or alternative energy issues. So, we set up the surface science network to bring scientists together from different parts of the company to address problems and challenges that they wouldn’t have otherwise looked at. We’re seeing some great synergies and conversations taking place, leading to some interesting new approaches.
Two of you came to the company from academia and one from elsewhere in industry. What do you see as the pluses and minuses of those work environments?Gibson:
I spent more than 20 years in academia and all the way through I was working fairly closely with BP, so when I jumped over the fence I had a certain idea of what I was going to find, but it turned out to be quite different. Once you really get into the organisation and start to interact with the scientists and technologists on a day-to-day basis, you find a depth and richness that you can’t appreciate from outside.
I do miss teaching – it takes a lot of time, but developing clear explanations and examples is a great discipline for deeply understanding technical material.
Bringing an external view to a company like BP is a very useful undertaking. Companies inherently tend to be more closed than academic environments. When you are a professor, you get almost continuous comment on how well you are doing by people you respect. There is much less of that in companies for obvious reasons. But something we try to do at BP is to provide some form of external view on things to deal with that.
What motivates you in your work?Williams:
huge motivation in working for a big energy company is that there is so much opportunity to change things for the better because the nature of the business is changing so rapidly. BP has to be constantly advancing its technical and operational approaches and, so, every day there are opportunities to put in place new ways of doing things that improve our ability to produce energy and to do it more cleanly.
As the energy challenge became more urgent a few years ago, it stimulated me to understand and work on the big issues, such as the costs of the energy challenge and where renewables fit in.
From previous interactions I had had with the company, I knew there were some really smart, capable people here. From a biology point of view, it represented an opportunity to bring a new and potentially transformative technology into a large company. As you start mixing biology, chemistry and engineering, you start finding unexpected revelations and approaches that you wouldn’t find if you stuck to a narrow disciplinary approach. Being able to do that in one of the major companies in the world, with a long-term view to bringing safe and more sustainable energy to the planet, is very exciting.