Tracking the future of energy technology
The role of technology in our lives has never been more important. As countries around the world work to reach an agreement at the UN climate conference, Shell Chief Technology Officer Yuri Sebregts speaks about the critical role technology can play in lowering carbon emissions. How energy companies can learn from the medical and space industries. And why companies must work harder to turn their bright ideas into commercial opportunities.
You’ve been at Shell for 24 years and have seen many developments in the energy industry. What have you focused on since taking over as Shell’s Chief Technology Officer in early 2015?
Although I started at Shell as an engineer, I’ve since focused most of my career on managing businesses so that they can work as commercially as possible. I’m taking a similar approach here.
We are facing lower oil prices and in this environment, more than ever, it’s my job to find ways to use technology in a more affordable way. That means we need to be better and faster at taking our bright ideas from the laboratory and turning them into commercial assets. We do it, but we could do it better. I often see activities where we’re doing great technical and scientific work but we haven’t given enough thought to how we as a company are going to implement it commercially.
What kinds of technology can help Shell find and produce energy more cost-effectively?
The use of automation and robotics is an important technical development for energy companies. Today, for example, Shell uses aerial drones to inspect flaring stacks at some of Europe’s biggest gas plants. We also use underwater robots that look like something from a James Bond movie to install underwater equipment.
We use an intelligent well-monitoring system that acts like an autopilot on an aircraft. It gathers data from Shell’s oil and gas wells around the world and uses that information to monitor drilling operations remotely in real time, improving efficiency and safety. For example, Shell drilling experts in the UK can oversee a drilling rig in the waters off West Africa. And one expert can oversee many rigs in different locations, saving our company time and money.
Underwater robots work on equipment controlling the flow of gas from a well in the Gulf of Mexico
One of the greatest challenges facing the world today is how to produce more energy while lowering carbon emissions. How do you see technology helping the world make the transition towards a more sustainable future?
Building a sustainable energy future is an enormously complex challenge. We expect demand for energy to continue to rise as populations and prosperity increase. The world will need all energy sources to meet that rising demand.
The focus should be on affordable ways to secure supply while addressing climate change and air pollution. That means making a major shift from coal to cleaner-burning gas in the production of electricity, something that is already helping lower emissions. Gas also makes an ideal partner for renewable energy because gas power plants can be fired up quickly – literally within minutes – when the sun sets, or the wind doesn’t blow.
Replacing a coal-fired plant with a gas-fired plant and carbon capture and storage (CCS), for example, can cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 90%. CCS is one of the only technologies that can significantly reduce carbon emissions from industrial sectors of the economy. Shell is involved in several CCS projects around the world, and launched the Quest CCS facility in Alberta, Canada in November 2015.
In the longer term, renewable energy sources will become increasingly crucial for providing the world the lower-carbon energy it needs. But one of the biggest challenges facing the world as it moves towards using more renewable energy is not so much the source of energy, but how you store that energy. Solar and wind power, for example, are often in the wrong place at the wrong time to power homes and businesses. At the moment, the world doesn’t have the right technology to meet that challenge. So in the long term, we are focusing part of Shell’s research and development efforts on how to store energy.
What is Shell’s role in the transition to a more sustainable energy future?
During my time at Shell I have worked in the chemicals, refining and lubricants businesses and it’s always been clear that technology is central to everything we do. Today, it’s also clear that if the world is to achieve the lower-carbon future it needs, technology will be absolutely critical. I see Shell contributing our technical expertise and ability to innovate.
Shell jointly owns one of the world’s biggest producers of low-carbon biofuel. We are also looking at how to increase the use of liquefied natural gas to power transport.
For the future, there are a number of areas that we want to understand better, both in terms of their cost and how they perform. This understanding will help us get a better sense of the shape of the future energy system.
One of the areas we want to understand better is the transport of energy. We believe that the future energy system will need a clean energy carrier in addition to electricity. Several technologies can serve as clean energy carriers but we are looking at hydrogen in particular. For example, Shell is taking part in a joint venture that will develop a network of 400 hydrogen refuelling stations in Germany by 2023.
Shell works in partnership with other companies and governments. Why is this important?
At Shell, we already bring in technologies developed outside the company. But I think we can do a lot more and more quickly. Instead of trying to invent so many things ourselves in our industry, we need to look more at other technology that is readily available to help us find and produce energy more quickly.
Some of the exciting technologies that we have brought in from other industries include the motion-control system developed for computer gaming consoles. We use this technology to fit pipes on drilling platforms with extreme precision, allowing drillers to screw pipes together from a remote-control centre safely and quickly. Traditionally, this job is done by a worker with a joystick who lines up pieces of pipe visually. We use MRI scanners like the ones found in hospitals to analyse rock samples and get a better understanding of reservoir rock formations.
And we have a way of displaying satellite images the way Google Earth does but looking below the earth’s surface rather than at streets. In fact, Shell measures gravity and magnetic data from space using data from the European Space Agency’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite that produced incredibly precise data compared to other satellites, partly because of its low orbit of around 255 kilometres from the earth’s surface. The mission ended in 2013. But this information has greatly improved our understanding of what’s inside the earth, including where oil and gas might be found.
Shell will continue to seek these kinds of opportunities for collaboration. With the global population and wealth rising, energy demand increasing and the need to avert serious climate change, it’s clear that today’s challenges are way too big for any one company, one industry or one country, to solve alone.
Shell uses data from the European Space Agency to uncover energy resources
Yuri Sebregts spoke to Jo Wrighton
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