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Open Innovation: Unlocking Future Energy

Collaboration with others, often players in completely different sectors, has become vital for success.

Few organisations can continue to rely solely on the skills and ingenuity that reside within their own enterprise to develop innovations that will change their game. Increasingly, companies must collaborate with others, often players in completely different sectors; this approach is known as open innovation.

The central premise of open innovation is that companies can uncover new ideas and increase speed to market by connecting with external innovation networks. And, perhaps because the energy sector faces such pressing and substantial challenges, it is especially pertinent there.

Thijs Jurgens, Vice President for Innovation at Shell, explains that Shell understands that one company alone cannot provide all the energy solutions the world needs as quickly as the world needs them. “That is beyond any single company, even one of our size, so we have to collaborate with others, big and small,” he says. Shell’s scientists and engineers therefore engage with the best and brightest minds in academia and those in and outside the energy industry.

Shell even has an open innovation toolkit with four elements: Shell GameChanger; Shell TechWorks; Shell Technology Ventures; and relationships with universities and other institutions and programmes with selected suppliers.

The Shell GameChanger programme aims to identify and develop unproven ideas that could drastically affect the future of energy. Perhaps the most striking innovation to be born through Shell GameChanger is floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG). Shell is currently building the world’s first FLNG facility, Prelude. It will also be the world’s largest floating offshore facility when it is moored off the coast of Australia, but this programme nurtured the initial idea as far back as 1997.

Shell TechWorks looks at technologies that other industries use and asks whether they could be adapted to help address problems in the energy sector.

The third element of Shell’s open innovation toolkit is Shell Technology Ventures, a corporate venturing arm that invests in companies across the energy sector to speed up the development of new technologies. This arm recently acquired a stake in GlassPoint, a specialist in solar enhanced oil recovery. GlassPoint is making a pilot plant for Petroleum Development Oman in which a system of long, curved mirrors focuses sunlight onto water pipes to help generate steam. This steam is channelled underground where it helps oil to flow more easily into the wells.

The final element is partnerships with universities and other institutions, of which Shell’s collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA is a good example. This covers a broad array of technologies, including next-generation applications in geophysical imaging, advanced visualisation and nanotechnology.

“Open innovation is very important for us,” Jurgens concludes. “We take it very seriously. There are so many good ideas out there that we can all benefit from.”

Thinking outside the Box

Shell Chief Scientists discuss some of the achievements of the organisation’s open innovation programme.

Automated wells

Full-scale commercialisation of tight and shale gas, and coal-bed methane can require drilling hundreds of wells each year over many years. “This led us to thinking about mass-producing wells using automation and standardised designs,” says Lance Cook, Shell Chief Scientist Well Engineering and Production Technology.

Shell then established a joint venture with China National Petroleum Corporation to develop a system for mass-producing wells. This will be able to drill and complete wells in a standardised and repeatable manner using advanced automation techniques to significantly improve the efficiency of creating new onshore wells.

Between rocks and hard places

In the past, the hydrocarbons that Shell supplied came from easy-to-reach reservoirs. Surrounding these reservoirs were impermeable zones containing lower levels of hydrocarbons that could not be exploited. Today, thanks to advances in drilling and production techniques, these previously ignored unconventional resources are rapidly moving into the production mainstream.

“However,” explains John Karanikas, Shell Chief Scientist Reservoir Engineering, “these new unconventionals pose huge challenges for the reservoir engineering discipline because, frankly, they are barely reservoirs in the traditional sense of the word.

“To improve our understanding of these resources, we are partnering with leading universities such as The University of Texas at Austin in the USA on collaborative research programmes that involve oil and gas production experts and materials, and civil engineering and physics specialists. These programmes seek to understand the behaviour of unconventional resources by studying them almost down to the molecular level to try to explain and predict reservoir-scale performance.”

Aerospace technology, down under

“To make most out of our oilfields, we need a clearer understanding of the subsurface conditions,” says Vianney Koelman, Shell Chief Scientist Petrophysics. “That presents a tremendous challenge to electronic sensors because digital electronics  have difficulty with the temperatures we encounter at the depths where we find oil. Temperatures and pressures can be high; it is a very hostile environment.”

Working with the aerospace industry, Shell has developed fibre-optic sensors suitable for use deep within the subsurface of the earth in downhole deployment applications. A single fibre-optic sensor can replace thousands of sensors to detect pressure, temperature and vibration.