Tapping reserves of deeper insight

They’re not sustainable. They release carbon dioxide. They’re dangerous to extract. They’re a major cause of geopolitical unrest, and finding alternatives to them is one of the most biggest goals of science and engineering research the world over. Nevertheless, fossil fuels are going to be a major part of all our lives for some decades to come.

Extracting, processing, transporting and selling oil and gas has been the biggest of big businesses for well over a century. Despite the rise in renewable resources, renewed interest in nuclear power and even quickening research in nuclear fusion, hydrocarbons remain important to modern life. Here in the UK, most of our electricity is made by burning gas, and no projection shows the amount of electricity from gas dropping below 25 per cent well into the 21st century. We use gas to heat our homes. And oil is, of course, just as valuable as a source of petrochemicals for plastics, fibres, dyestuffs and many other products of the chemical industry.

But the oil and gas industry is finding that it has to change. Increasingly, the easy reserves have been tapped and are running out; the prospectors need to find new sources, and they are more difficult to reach, more difficult to extract, and often more difficult to handle when they are removed from the ground. Offshore, the industry is working in deeper and deeper water, in more hostile climates, using more complex techniques. It’s having to investigate ways to limit the impact on the environment of burning fossil fuels, and it’s having to find its own ways of conserving energy. For an innately conservative industry, where technological innovation is often slower than in other sectors, it’s seeing possibly the biggest changes for decades.

In this special issue, The Engineer looks at some of the ways that the oil and gas sector is changing. We round up some of the latest developments in the field of carbon capture and storage, the tricky business of preventing the carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels from entering the atmosphere. And we look at some of the technologies that Anglo-Dutch petrochems giant Shell is developing to drill the complex well networks needed for shale gas and coalbed methane, and to reduce the time, materials and energy needed to drill deep offshore wells.

Elsewhere in this issue, we feature a preview of the upcoming Gastech exhibiton, including its dedicated section focusing on skills and recruitment, along with interviews with two senior engineers in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector. Faced with the question of how to attract young engineers to fossil fuels, rather than the growth areas of renewables, both of them stress the need to work on transitional technologies and long-term solutions: practical means of supplying our energy needs into the future.

And this is the most important point. When it comes to energy, we’re in transition, even though it isn’t precisely clear what we’re in transition to. Managing that transition means that we need technologies, skills and engineers now, tomorrow, and all the way into the future. Oil and gas will go away eventually, but it isn’t gone yet.

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