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A bigger brain

Release date:
21 January 2020
BP’s partnerships with some of the world’s top universities have resulted in some exceptional ideas. We look back on 20 years of collaboration

BP is a science, technology and research-driven business – it always has been. So that's why, two decades ago, when BP became one of the first energy companies to address the threat of climate change, pioneering alternatives like wind, solar and biofuels, it also set in motion a plan to work with the world’s finest academics on the issue.


The goal? To create a bigger brain to help address this defining challenge. Essentially, connecting BP’s community of 2,000-plus researchers with the scientific community to improve understanding and find solutions. 


So began BP’s partnership with some of the world’s foremost universities, including Princeton, Tufts and Harvard in the US, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London in the UK, and Tsinghua in China.


In the two decades since, BP has forged valuable relationships with these academic institutions and, in the process, created a network of world-class research units.

 

“I want the carbon and climate problem solved as quickly as possible, but it’s hard with the current technologies, so there’s an indispensable role for oil and gas companies to play in helping to find the solutions we need,” says Professor Stephen Pacala, a leading climate scientist and director of the BP-backed Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) at Princeton University. 

 

For BP, access to external scientific views and perspectives complements research within the company, says Anna-Marie Greenaway, BP global director of university relations. “BP has more than 2,000 top scientists, but working with the global academic ecosystem outside the company enhances diversity of thinking and that’s a powerhouse for innovation and progress,” she says.


Such exchanges of information have also helped BP’s top executives get to grips early on with the latest thinking around climate change  ̶  a key step to addressing it, says Gardiner Hill, BP’s vice president of carbon management, who set up the partnership with Princeton’s CMI in 2000.

 

 

“I want the carbon and climate problem solved as quickly as possible, but it’s hard with the current technologies, so there’s an indispensable role for oil and gas companies to play in helping to find the solutions we need.”

 

Professor Stephen Pacala, director of the CMI, Princeton

 

The university partnerships have a wider impact beyond developing technologies and finding new business opportunities. BP-funded  university research on climate science and decarbonization is peer-reviewed and published, making it widely available to governments, environmental groups and society.


BP facilitates meetings and workshops where Pacala and other top academics, scientists and policy makers from around the world can discuss and share ideas and insights on reducing emissions, including methane measuring, carbon capture and storage (CCS), improving air quality and energy system optimization modelling. 


Last November, BP supported a workshop at the Clean Energy Research and Education Center (CEC) at Tsinghua University in China that deployed strategic roadmapping methodologies developed by the University of Cambridge. This brought together a group of multi-disciplinary, multi-national academics and energy experts to explore opportunities for accelerating low carbon energy pathways. 

 

Looking forward, it is hoped that these established university relationships will create even greater impact, through amplifying connectivity between themselves and also with new world-class partners across the globe. Plans are already in place for a major symposium on Industrial Energy Transition in February, hosted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB) and featuring guest speakers from Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge.   

Here, we take a closer look at BP’s partnerships with three leading universities and their work to understand climate change

Princeton University

Princeton University and the CMI

BP-supported work at CMI spans technologies such as CCS in geological formations and advanced battery technology, as well as developing more accurate measurements of methane emissions.  


Princeton’s CMI has also published more than 600 peer-reviewed papers on climate science, modelling and other related areas on its website. Some of these studies have been particularly influential, helping to sharpen the focus on finding solutions to climate change.


One example is the ‘Stabilization Wedges’ paper, co-authored by Princeton professors and CMI co-directors Pacala and Robert Socolow. The concept was featured in Al Gore’s seminal 2006 climate change film An Inconvenient Truth. It has also been turned into a game that teachers can use to explain the efforts needed to address climate change.  


The Wedges paper provides a framework to assess the varying contributions needed from wind, solar and nuclear energies, and technology like CCS, to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. 


First published in 2004, the paper has been updated every few years to incorporate advances in technologies, as well as increases in emissions and changes in countries’ commitments. 


Another influential paper from Princeton’s CMI found that a disproportionate amount of the world’s emissions comes from its wealthiest citizens, regardless of nationality. The study proposed a more equitable way of allocating carbon caps that exempts the poorest one-third of the world’s population from emissions reductions until their standard of living improves.


From 2001 to 2016, in a bid to protect the planet’s future, the CMI stepped back into the distant past to examine trapped carbon dioxide  and methane frozen in the world’s oldest ice samples from Antarctica.

 

From the samples, the scientists were able to go back a million years in time to log changes in the Antarctic climate and the amounts of GHGs in the atmosphere.

 

More recently, in a US National Science Foundation-supported effort building on the CMI work, Princeton scientists and their collaborators extended this record of carbon dioxide and Antarctic climate back to 2 million years. 

Project leader John Higgins displays an ice core

Air trapped in bubbles in the ice, barely visible, represents samples of fossil air that can be extracted from the core and used to establish the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the ancient atmosphere.  

The team's field camp in the Allan Hills, Anarctica

The rock in the picture represents pinnacles of the Transantarctic Mountains, which rise from 1,000 metres or more below the surface. 

Data on the carbon dioxide concentrations and climates of the distant past are critical to test the predictive power of climate models, and thus to improve confidence in their ability to determine efforts needed to reduce emissions. 


And, CMI’s work around monitoring and measuring methane emissions is particularly important for the energy industry’s efforts to tackle the issue, which previously relied on calculations that were based on estimates. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) has identified methane and CCS as the two most important issues for the energy transition.

University of Cambridge

The BPI at the University of Cambridge

In 2000, BP helped to establish the BP Institute for Multiphase Flow (BPI) at the University of Cambridge. Over the years, the BPI’s research has helped to enhance recovery from challenging and mature hydrocarbon reservoirs. Improving the efficiency at oil and gas fields reduces the number of new wells that need to be drilled, helping to improve safety and reduce environmental impact, as well as lowering the carbon intensity of producing the energy.


Now, the BPI is stepping up its testing of carbon sequestration technologies, where carbon dioxide is stored in soil or deep saline aquifers, or locked in cement, says Professor Andy Woods, who heads up the institute.


This work is essential to proving the capacity and viability of a particular type of carbon dioxide storage technology to regulators. As well as making the results public and transparent, it will be important in helping CCS gain public acceptance, which is key if the technology is to be scaled up, he says.


“There is still only a small number of CCS projects operational at scale globally, but there is huge potential and active planning going on. What we’re doing is helping to build up the scientific knowledge base, which complements the work that BP is doing to highlight the role of sequestration in accelerating to carbon neutral energy provision,” Woods says.

 

CCS is a big lever to reduce emissions from the power sector and other industries, such as cement and chemicals processing. The BPI offers a multi-disciplinary approach to research and BP has encouraged research collaborations with other industries and sectors. For example, insights into the physics of heat transfer and natural ventilation helps architects and designers to make buildings more energy efficient. 

BPI director Professor Andy Woods with Anna-Marie Greenaway, BP global director of university relations

A researcher at the BPI

Reducing emissions in the building sector is an important factor in reaching climate targets and research at the BPI has contributed to the design of low-energy heating systems for large buildings, including the one in use at BP’s North Sea headquarters in Aberdeen. 

 

In 2006, the technology was spun out of Cambridge University with support from BP to form Breathing Buildings, a natural ventilation company whose technology has been deployed in more than 100 schools.

 

The BPI is now applying these scientific insights of ventilation to make transport tunnels safer and help to reduce hospital infections by preventing the transmission of infectious microbes in buildings’ ventilation systems.

Tsinghau University

Tsinghua University and the CEC

China’s Clean Energy Research Center (CEC) was established in 2003 with an initial five-year grant from BP. Its research includes energy systems and strategy, energy savings, natural gas development, improving the efficiency at coal plants, low carbon power generation and transport modelling. 


So far, the CEC’s efficiency work has been applied at more than 10 coal power plants and made a substantial contribution to energy savings and reducing emissions.

 
BP has also supported some of the CEC’s work on roadmaps for deploying hydrogen, renewables, biofuels and CCS in China, as well as developing a strategy for alternative energy in China.


The CEC is also looking to the CMI and BP for support in its study of ways to reduce methane emissions from China’s natural gas production and its coal mining sector.

“This is very important work. Collaborating with BP has helped to inform and strengthen our work towards China’s energy transition.” 

 

Professor Li Zheng, director of the Tsinghua-BP CEC

Academics and energy experts attend a workshop at the CEC on roadmapping technologies developed by the University of Cambridge

“This is very important work,” says Professor Li Zheng, director of the Tsinghua-BP CEC. “Collaborating with BP has helped to inform and strengthen our work towards China’s energy transition.” 


With the need for sustainable solutions to tackling climate change an ever-growing concern, investing in these long-term relationships with leading universities is vitally important to BP. “It’s like making a rope – the threads come together and they’re stronger than the sum of their parts,” says Greenaway. “BP was at the forefront of the word’s energy transitions in the last century and we are committed to advancing the transition to low carbon energy, working in partnership with the best minds from all around the world.”       

From lab to labour force

So successful has our collaboration with these universities been that some of those who worked on the research have gone on to join BP. Meet three former students who swapped academia for real-world science application
KIERAN BHATIA, climate science programme lead at BP, whose research at Princeton’s CMI focused on how climate change affects tropical cyclones and changed wind speeds. Bhatia joined BP in 2018.
“I first got interested in meteorology because of the societal impacts of the science – better weather forecasts can positively affect people’s safety and day-to-day activities. I then became curious in studying the science behind extreme weather. My PhD in meteorology and oceanography and postdoctoral work in climate science and extreme weather helped me to understand the ‘why’ behind forecast successes and challenges. Working for BP is a way that I can make a difference. Oil and gas companies have a lot of say in how we move forward, so if you want to make an impact and advance the energy transition, it’s a great space to be.”
ANDREA KUESTERS, a drilling mechanics/optimization specialist at BP, who worked on low-energy buildings research at Cambridge’s BPI before joining BP in 2012.
“I enjoy fluid dynamics and wanted to do more in that area, but it was the practical application that really interested me. I didn’t want to just do maths and not apply it. With the low-energy buildings research, it was great to use the mathematical modelling in a real-world application that has an environmental aspect and to see that if you design something a certain way, it can save some energy. I felt like I was doing something good for the planet.” 
CHANG SHI YAO, BP technology innovation and investment manager, joined BP in 2017 after researching ways to reduce water consumption at coal power plants in different provinces in China.
“I joined this team because BP in China is looking at new energies like renewables and other clean technologies. It’s a growth business and I feel proud because my work is contributing to making BP and China cleaner and greener.”
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