Six next-generation technologies that matter for the energy industry

Last edited: 6 September 2017

Technology moves so rapidly that new approaches or ideas can emerge – and fade – within short timescales. This is especially evident in the energy world where the evolution of established technologies, coupled with the increasing influence of digital innovation, together with customer demand and government policies, are changing the way companies operate. What are some of the significant technologies on BP's radar?

The dual challenge of meeting growing energy demand in the developing world, while working to reduce carbon emissions, is creating a constant stream of ideas with the potential to transform how the world produces and consumes energy. 

For BP, that represents both a threat and an opportunity. The role of the Emerging Technology team, led by Dan Walker, is to keep focused on what is next and evaluate its potential impact on BP.

He explains: “There are hundreds of technologies out there that could impact BP, either positively or negatively, and we’re constantly scanning to identify and track these. We have to evaluate these technologies, analyse their strategic fit to BP and then prioritise them for potential action. Back in 2015, we saw the emergence of battery and fuel cells technologies, while just a couple of years later in 2017 we’ve seen blockchain and next generation wind technology come into focus.”

So, what new technologies are emerging to create challenges and opportunities for the energy world? And where, when and how might their impact be felt? 

1. New kid on the block: the incorruptible digital record, blockchain

What is it?

Blockchain is a digital ledger that creates and stores records, called blocks, and then links those blocks to one another in a chain. The data in a blockchain is time stamped and the information recorded cannot be altered retrospectively – thus making records verifiable and permanent. The records are then stored in a transparent, shared database where users can see the data, but it is protected from tampering and deletion.

Emerging technology graphic: blockchain
The technology enables the direct exchange of assets or tools, such as money, contracts or intellectual property rights, in a secure way without the involvement of intermediaries to manage the exchange, like banks, utility companies or governments. The digital currency Bitcoin is the best-known example of blockchain technology, with $7 billion worth in circulation today according to estimates.

Blockchain could disrupt whole industries, by changing how trading is carried out and how transactions are processed and cleared. It could transform a sector such as banking, for example, where the banks currently act as intermediaries in the supply chain. 

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

In the energy industry, blockchain offers an opportunity to create disruptive business models in trading, supply chain management and retail. It might also be used to reduce operational risk and transactional costs, as well as to increase compliance. 

The opportunities for a business like BP are significant. For example, in fuel retailing, the technology would facilitate payments directly from a driver’s blockchain ‘wallet’ and smart contract via his or her vehicle to the retail station or business, without the need to transact through a bank.
Elsewhere, customers might source their power directly from an energy supplier, with no need for third party involvement. Together with virtual power plants, blockchain could also be a powerful tool allowing consumers to trade any excess power generated from their solar photo-voltaic or fuel cell-powered home, without the need to use a utility or centralized grid.

What are the challenges?

Blockchain was not originally designed for mainstream use, so scalability is a major challenge given the increased demands for storage, energy consumption, bandwidth and computational power. Security is also a concern, as demonstrated by a major hack in 2014 of the company handling the majority of Bitcoin transactions at that time.

Leading the way... 

  • Financial sector
  • Real estate
  • Government services
  • Supply chains

2. On the road: autonomous vehicle technology

What is it?

For decades, television and film stars have climbed into the back seats of vehicles and watched auto-pilots take control. Think Batman, Knight Rider and more recently, Minority Report. But, autonomous (also known as driverless or self-driving) cars are no longer purely fictional. Vehicles that are capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input are already on our roads. The technology is being developed on different types of vehicles including internal combustion engines, electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles.

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

The full impact of this technology is highly uncertain. Low levels of autonomous vehicles are expected to have a modest effect on fuel efficiency. However, higher automation levels and widespread deployment could lead to significant impacts on the liquid fuels and lubricants markets.

Refuelling and charging these vehicles is another area of potential involvement for the oil and gas industry. For example, service stations are already offering both gasoline and electric charging points on the same forecourt. Charging time will also be important as motorists may enter the convenience stores while they wait. 

BP’s Dan Walker adds: “Autonomous vehicles could also have a huge impact on productivity. When you’re in a car in the future and you don’t need to drive, you can be having your first meeting, checking your emails, doing your shopping. That frees up a lot of time, and creates a lot of marketing opportunities as well.”

Leading the way... 

  • Technology firms
  • Original equipment manufacturers

What are the challenges?

In 2016, Waymo, Google’s sibling company, had one so-called ‘disengagement’ - where humans had to take back control from the computer - every 5,128 miles. Although technology improvements are already producing impressive results, there are still significant challenges in defining the sensor suite, processing power and most importantly writing the software code.

Once technology is ready, there will be regulatory hurdles to be overcome, both on the road and in the air, and consumer acceptance. Due to the fast pace of development, accidents do occasionally happen and these can undermine the current strong public and regulatory support for the technology. Digital security is also a concern, with future vehicles being wirelessly ‘connected’ and therefore open to hacking.

3. In duplicate: 3D printing

What is it?

3D printing is a manufacturing technique that creates physical objects from digital models using a range of materials from metals to resins. The ‘printer’ deposits very thin layers of material from the ground up, side-to-side and backwards and forwards to build the object. 

The concept has been around for more than 30 years, but the increasing sophistication of the technology, advances in digital technologies and lower equipment costs mean it is now on the verge of becoming mainstream.

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

According to Accenture, there are two drivers for the oil and gas industry. The first is to reduce costs and increase operational efficiency, for example by producing new parts that weren’t available for manufacture or improving the design of current parts to enhance safety, efficiency, and reduce costs.

The second is that in the Downstream, 3D printing represents a potential new revenue stream for oil and gas companies who can provide the chemical powders and plastics used as ‘ink’ by these printers.
Emerging tech graphic: 3D printing

Leading the way... 

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive industry
  • Biomedical
  • Manufacturing 
  • Construction

What are the challenges?

3D printing remains relatively unproven for precision-engineering parts. The current technology is restricted in the size of parts that can be printed, as well as the cost of production and considerable post-production processing that is needed. The oil and gas industry has high demands in terms of reliability and durability in extreme conditions, such as high pressures and temperatures in wells, and harsh climates offshore.

4. Mr Robot: artificial intelligence

What is it?

Drawn from an old Slavonic word, ‘robota’ meaning forced labour or drudgery, a robot first appeared in a play, by Czech writer Karel Čapek, in 1920. By the final act, the robots had revolted against their human creators and that set the tone for the image of these machines in science fiction. 

In reality, artificial intelligence is the ability of a computer to go beyond pre-programmed processing and exhibit human-like behaviours, such as reasoning.

Leading the way... 

  • Technology multinationals
  • Space agencies 
  • Tech start-up community

AI will enable computer systems to deal with imprecise problems without the need for programmers to code for every eventuality, applying reason, learning from the environment in which they operate, and improving their performance over time. Today, AI is already behind Apple’s Siri, Google’s autonomous vehicles and Amazon’s personalized recommendations.

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

AI can tackle problems that have previously required human deliberation, especially when supporting information for those problems is imprecise or conflicting. Systems with AI can and will continue to learn strategies to respond with different approaches to changing situations.

For oil and gas, AI could make a difference, for example, in the monitoring of operations. Computers with AI will anticipate problems and then recommend corrective actions. Intelligent autonomous vehicles (such as remotely operated submarines) will be controlled by cognitive systems that will direct actions and adapt, according to the operational environment.

What are the challenges?

“Perhaps the biggest barrier today to making significant progress is bringing the computer science and oil and gas worlds together," says Walker. "Oil and gas companies know where their biggest inefficiencies lie, where their costs are too high and what their biggest risks are, and computer science companies know how to mine data and apply AI algorithms to draw insights and improve performance. Areas such as drilling and equipment reliability offer great opportunities if the data is harnessed in the right way.”

5. Electric shocks? E-fuels

What is it?

First, there was mail and then came email; the 'e' version of the original is so common in daily life in 2017 that it’s hard to imagine a time without it. Might the same be said for e-fuels in the next few decades?

Electrofuels (e-fuels) is an umbrella term for liquid or gaseous fuels, that are produced using electricity as the primary source of energy.  E-fuels use common constituents such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water to form chemical compounds that can serve as fuels or feedstock.

E-fuels may have the potential to disrupt the existing fuels space in the long-term, with drop-in fuels (such as e-diesel), if power is at sufficiently low cost.

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

E-fuels could be compatible with the current industrial infrastructure and supply chain, and can be stored efficiently and at low cost.
The energy needed for CO2 conversion to liquid fuels or chemicals is considerable and would need to come from renewable sources (such as wind and solar) or directly from concentrated sunlight (solar fuels). The development of efficient and low-cost catalysts is important and has been accelerated with advances in material sciences and artificial intelligence.

What are the challenges?

Due to their early stage of development, questions remain about the economic feasibility of e-fuels commercialization. At present, e-fuels cannot compete with biofuels or traditional fossil fuels, but similar to biofuels, they would benefit from carbon pricing.

Leading the way... 

  • Start-up companies
  • University sector
  • Government energy laboratories

Production is still in its infancy, and, before e-fuels are brought to market on a large scale, factors that need to be overcome include the capital cost per unit of output and power consumption – which may require some form of green credits to make the products viable.

Moreover, with the cost of batteries coming down considerably and the move to transport electrification, there may be less commercial incentives to develop e-fuels as an ‘excess renewable power’ storage medium or liquid fuel.

6. Flying high: wind technology

What is it?

America’s first wind turbine generated electricity back in 1888, supplying Ohio engineer Charles Brush with power for his home for more than two decades. Fast forward into the 21st century and wind, a renewable energy source with zero emissions, is projected to be the single fastest-growing energy source over the next 20 years. And its technology is changing too.

“Wind energy has become a mainstream, competitive and reliable power technology in recent years," according to Walker. "Technology improvements have continuously reduced energy costs, especially on land. Efforts are now focusing on improving performance, reliability and overcoming the technical challenges of large scale offshore installations. Unconventional methods of wind energy harvesting are also being investigated.”

What impact could it have on the energy sector?

Advances in technology keep driving wind energy forward. The general trend in turbine design has been to increase the height of the tower, the length of the blades and the power capacity. Adaptability to harsher climates, such as snow and ice and tropical typhoons, and advances in aerodynamics will play a part.

Less conventional methods for harvesting wind energy include bladeless wind turbines, which eliminate the need for rotating equipment and airborne (kite) wind turbines, which achieve higher altitudes without the need for physical structures. These methods are in early stages of development.

“When we talk about next generation wind, we’re talking about kite turbines the size of aeroplane wings," adds Walker. "They are tethered to the ground but fly high in the sky. They generate a lot of power because the higher you get, the more wind there is.”

What are the challenges?

Intermittency remains a challenge for the industry, with advances in energy storage a key factor in enabling energy generated when the wind is blowing to be available to people when it’s calm. Transmission is also a key factor, as the areas where wind energy is stronger, may be far away from urban areas (such as in Texas, US). Advances in superconducting transmissions lines are helping to move this forward.

Making turbines more weather resistant so they can operate in extremes is also important, as well as efficiency improvements on turbines to make them more cost effective.

Leading the way... 

  • Wind energy sector
  • Power companies
  • Tech start-ups
  • More recently, oil and gas majors

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