Keeping a watchful eye on the emerging tech that could present the greatest game-changing opportunities for BP is all part of the day job for the experts who form our technology futures team.
Leading the team is Dan Walker. He says: “Technology has a huge role to play in driving our transition to a lower carbon future. We’re building capability in emerging areas so we can deploy the latest technologies at the right time.”
Dan's colleagues, technology futures guru Bogdan Gagea and computing expert Paul Stone, talk us through five technologies that have been on BP’s radar for some time, but are now set for more mainstream success thanks to falling costs and big technological advances.
What’s most exciting in this field are the new turbine technologies designed to access higher, more persistent winds. These technologies are maturing fast and costs are falling significantly.
Offshore wind turbine offer huge electricity-generating potential thanks to their incredible size, which gives them access to powerful winds. By comparison, they dwarf onshore turbines, which have been stunted in size by one surprising factor – the fact that their component parts are limited by road transport logistics, such as the height restrictions on bridges and tunnels.
No such limitations exist with offshore wind; turbines can be made near the shoreline and transported by ship offshore. These larger turbines can generate much more power; currently, 10MW and the industry is talking about achieving 15MW by 2025.
Tests of floating offshore turbines are also under way. Buoyed on platforms and anchored to the sea floor with steel chains, these giants have ‘unbelievable potential’ says Bogdan.
So, what’s stopping the move to floating offshore? The technology already exists and has been tested, but, as with onshore wind, there are logistical issues: few ships are big enough to install floating turbines and the huge steel chains and anchors needed to moor these giant turbines are in limited supply today.
Airborne wind turbines are also in rapid development. Picture a very large kite connected to the ground by a tether that allows movement up and down the air column; pulling the tether generates electricity on the ground. Capturing higher-velocity wind at greater altitudes without the need for an expensive tower could radically reduce costs and provides access to wind energy anywhere on the planet, even in mountainous countries such as Japan, for instance. However, there’s a material barrier to take off. To achieve capacity on a par with current ground-based turbines will require much stronger materials than those used for a kite. For that reason, commercial airborne technology is thought to be around a decade away.
Already a key wind energy producer in the US, BP is involved in a range of advanced wind technology activities. For example, its Castrol business has created a joint venture with Romax Technology called ONYX InSight, which helps turbine operators monitor the conditions of their turbines to improve performance and avoid unnecessary breakdowns. In addition, we’re building up our renewables business and exploring new business models. We want to invest in the right opportunities at the right time so are constantly exploring those opportunities, including offshore wind.
Through its Lightsource BP partnership, BP is exploring several solar technology options. These include the use of bifacial panels, which generate energy by exposing both sides of a solar cell to sunlight; floating solar farms; and smart inverters to help bridge the intermittent gap between when solar energy is produced and when it is consumed.
Lightsource BP has also become the first company in the UK to provide reactive power from a solar plant to the grid at night, following a recent trial of the technology that was three years in development at its St Francis solar plant in East Sussex, UK. With technological advances like these, BP’s Energy Outlook predicts there could be a 10-fold increase in installed solar capacity between now and 2040.
Like wind, improvements in technology and falling costs are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Bogdan says: “We’ve looked at 50 or more disruptive technologies out there, but we’re most impressed by the small, continuous solar improvements that have been made to the silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) panels.”
Take solar panel manufacturing, for example. Solar panels are made by slicing a silicon block – much like cutting a loaf of bread. Each slice is cut 200 microns thick, but the knife wastes a further 150 microns of silicon – “just like when you cut bread you get breadcrumbs,” says Bogdan.
Rapid technological improvements mean the knife is getting better and the thickness of the slice is much thinner, to the point where you now only need half as much silicon to make a panel. This greatly reduces the cost.
BP is one of many companies looking at hydrogen where production results in low, zero or even negative carbon dioxide emissions. BP categorizes these technologies as ‘green hydrogen’ – a topic climbing BP’s technology watch list this year.
Most hydrogen produced today results in significant CO2 emissions. But, if produced differently, with the CO2 captured before it is released to the atmosphere or, alternatively, produced using renewable sources, hydrogen could help to decarbonize a range of major sectors, including transport, heating and heavy industry, because, when burned, hydrogen's only byproduct is water.
Electrolysis is one technology option for hydrogen production, where renewable power is used to split water from hydrogen. While this technology has been around for many years, the recent fall in the cost of renewables has created fresh interest.
Over the next 10 years, electrolysis could help with decarbonization in parts of the world with low-cost renewables, or where carbon storage is not possible.
Other green hydrogen technologies are at different stages of maturity and each option faces technological and economical challenges. Plus, its density means hydrogen is not easy to transport. Nevertheless, diversity of sources and long-term storage capability could make green hydrogen an important energy for the future.
Last year, BP’s Lingen refinery in Germany became the world’s first to use green hydrogen from water electrolysis to meet a proportion of its hydrogen demand. And, in the Netherlands, BP is working with chemicals company Nouryon and the Port of Rotterdam on a feasibility study to explore creating Europe’s largest 250MW electrolysis facility for the production of green hydrogen, which would be based in the Dutch port.
BP’s advanced mobility unit has made several strategic electric mobility investments, including in StoreDot, an ultra-fast charging (UFC) battery development company. In 2019, StoreDot and BP demonstrated a live, full charge of an electric scooter, equipped with a StoreDot battery, marking a world first in UFC technology. Meanwhile, BP’s wind business is piloting a high-performance energy storage project using a battery supplied and fitted by Tesla at its Titan 1 wind site in South Dakota.
Electric mobility is also set to take off in the next five years, with BP’s experts predicting that the cost of an electric car will compete with traditional internal combustion engines (ICE) sooner than expected. Bogdan says: “For the average consumer, we see the tipping point coming in around 2025, when the upfront cost between pure electric vehicles and ICE is likely to reach parity.
“And, we don’t think we need a battery technology breakthrough to get there, as current lithium ion technology is very close and getting better all the time.”
Interestingly, the tipping point might reach Asian economies quicker than Western, but in two- or three- rather than four-wheeled vehicles. In China, there are more than 300 million two and three-wheeler EVs alone compared to five million light passenger vehicles worldwide. “It’s a booming sector that a lot of people are not aware of,” says Bogdan.
And, as the lithium ion battery gets better, there is new hope that it will unlock the previously hard to electrify freight transport market. Bogdan explains – trucks were once thought impossible to electrify due to the massive battery needed to power them, but that view is changing as lighter batteries come on the market.
And air travel? Flying internationally seems out of reach for the foreseeable future, but the technology is there for smaller aircraft. What’s currently missing is a regulatory environment that will allow small aircraft, such as air taxis, to fly low above our cities.
Cognitive computing is the most sophisticated form of artificial intelligence (AI). If you think of AI as a stack of capability, at the base layer of the pyramid is data analytics and at the pinnacle is cognitive computing, explains Paul Stone. Cognitive computing mimics human reasoning and will use knowledge provided by domain experts, not just data, to understand situations, solve problems and recommend actions. Cognitive ‘agents’ differ from standard artificial intelligence applications as they can adapt and become smarter over time as they interact with more experts, problems and data. Cognitive ‘agents’ are able to operate in complex situations where uncertainty exists and data may be in short supply. In such situations, they approach problems much as a human would.
The technology is maturing rapidly and applications are in development for refinery optimization, managing sand production in the Upstream, assisting experts in formulating lubricant products and advising experts working in Upstream’s subsurface activities. Ultimately, we expect cognitive systems to collaborate across business domains and even segments by, for instance, helping collaboration between experts in subsurface and drilling to improve accuracy and efficiency.
BP has invested in a company called Beyond Limits. Founded in 2012, Beyond Limits is commercializing cognitive computing and AI software created by NASA over the past 20 years. There are many similarities between the problems of deep space missions and those faced by the oil and gas industry and NASA has proven cognitive computing technology used in deep space missions. Beyond Limits codification of human expert knowledge and use alongside machine learning has the potential to help the energy sector improve operational insight, improve safety, further optimize performance and introduce additional process automation.