Tackling the oil and gas industry’s image problem

The impressive entries in BP’s student competition could help reduce the fossil fuel sector’s carbon footprint but will they address the skills shortage?

Think student project and the images that might spring to mind are of rickety looking models, dull flow charts and overly complex solutions to issues you aren’t really sure are problems in the first place. But if I ever held such an unfair stereotype, it was well and truly shattered by the final of BP’s Ultimate Field Trip competition on Monday night, when students from four UK universities put forward some incredibly impressive, innovative and imaginative ideas for reducing the oil and gas industry’s energy footprint.

Four teams of young men, barely out of braces, stood in the same place as Michael Faraday and all those Christmas Lecturers to address the audience of a packed theatre in the Royal Institution, including an intimidating panel of judges, eloquently explaining their compelling visions for how BP could make its operations less wasteful and energy-intensive. Their ideas ranged from the bold to the sensible and some seemed more viable than others, but all were as commercially well considered as they were creative.

First up were Strathclyde University’s “Team ECOneering”, a group of third year civil engineering students who proposed reducing the energy used by refineries to heat oil to the necessary high temperatures using solar thermal concentrators. With established technologies, the system would use an array of concave mirrors to reflect and intensify the sun’s rays onto a molten salt storage tank. The captured thermal energy could then be used to continuously heat the oil, even after the sun had gone down. The technology would be best suited to desert-based refineries in the Middle East, Africa and the USA but could also reduce the energy needs of plants in cooler climates such as the Mediterranean.

Next were Oxford University’s “I Challenge You to a Joule”, who proposed a modular aluminium smelting system powered with electricity generated from gas from onshore wells that would otherwise be flared. Given the doubling of demand from aluminium in the last decade, the students claimed that using “free” waste energy would produce the most profitable aluminium-making operation in the world.

The power generation and electrolysis technology would be small enough to be transported between wells within a field, allowing operators to drive it to wherever gas was being flared and eliminating the need for extra infrastructure. But the modular smelter would also be the same size as the individual units in permanent facilities, which the team claimed would maintain standard efficiencies. The students found that Texas oilwells flare around half a billion cubic feet of gas a year and the state has an established aluminium industry, leading to the conclusion that it would be the best starting point for use of the technology, which they estimated would have a payback time of seven years.

Following that came “Team Ignite” from Birmingham University, who proposed a thermopile device for converting the heat from gas flares into electricity. The second-year chemical engineering students admitted to the judges that the technology converted just 15 per cent of the energy were made using expensive titanium. But because they designed the device as a hexagonal tube that could be made from flat, off-the-shelf thermopile components and easily fitted around a flare chimney, they claimed it would take just three and a half years for a well operator to earn back the capital costs through energy savings.

Finally, Durham University’s “Team Palatinate”, formed by a group of geologists and geophysicists, suggested capturing the waste heat from gas turbines used to provide the large amounts of electricity needed at an oil well site. This heat would be fed into an Organic Rankine cycle (ORC) that uses hot production fluids from the well (a technology already being pursued by the oil and gas industry) to convert relatively low temperature heat into electricity. The students claimed adding the gas turbine element could increase power output of the ORC by anything from 23 per cent to 120 per cent, giving a potential payback time of just one to two years.

As you can tell, the suggestions range from the somewhat outlandish (what could go wrong with firing a hugely powerful beam of energy at an oil refinery?) to something so straightforward one of the judges asked why BP wasn’t doing it already (I presume it’s a coincidence that the most staid and sensible idea came from a team of geologists). The winners, Oxford’s mobile aluminium smelters, seemed to hit the sweet spot between creativity and practicality. But what struck me about all the entries was the degree to which the students had thought about the commercial realities of implementing their designs, presumably encouraged to do so by the competition’s entry criteria.

BP’s aim with the competition was, after all, to attract the next generation of oil and gas engineers to work in the company – not to develop ground-breaking renewable and energy-saving systems that will form part of the firm’s future plans. As the company’s head of graduate resources, Suzy Style, admitted to me, the numbers of students choosing a career in the sector has been declining in recent years. The Ultimate Field Trip competition is designed to tackle that by getting students to think about and understand the full range of careers open to them in oil and gas – the prize is the eponymous trip to BP sites around the world.

‘We don’t want to just preach to the converted,’ said Style. ‘We know there’s lots of people studying STEM subjects who don’t understand the variety of roles at BP and the sorts of work they could do … This competition highlights how focused BP are on the very challenge of trying to reduce the amount of energy consumption that we use. So how great for us to get some of the best and brightest students to get engaged with us on that challenge.’

Great in theory, but does it work in practice, given the sector’s image problem? BP and the oil and gas industry is taking steps to reduce energy consumption, but it’s more through incremental efficiency improvements and upgrades rather than implementing the kind of ground-breaking technologies the students were proposing. BP spent a short while trying to rebrand itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’. But having now abandoned that strategy, the firm is probably better known to a generation more concerned about the environment than any other as the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. 

A competition that makes students aware of the full range of opportunities open to them in the oil and gas sector is a great idea. How much more effective would the competition be if those students saw the industry taking steps as bold as the ones they are proposing?