Innovations in energy

A flatbed 3D printer nozzle.

Photo by Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Graphic courtesy of BP.

26 February 2016 3 minute read


With such rapid innovation in the field of engineering, it’s hard to predict how our future will look, but one thing we know for sure is that life in 2050 will look very different. With this in mind, BP Magazine has drawn up a list of the top emerging technologies that could revolutionise the world of energy, and we took a closer look at our favourites.

Quantum computing

While still in its infancy, Quantum computing holds the potential to transform the energy industry. Sounding like something dreamt up on the set of a sci-fi movie, quantum computing uses a ‘qubit’, or quantum bit, in place of the traditional binary digits of 1 and 0 to carry information. Each unit can theoretically hold an infinite number of values, allowing for massive amounts of data to be processed in seconds.

To put this processing power into perspective, BP’s current silicon-based, digital supercomputer in Houston is capable of completing an astonishing 4,000,000,000,000,000 (that is 4 quadrillion) calculations per second. In quantum computing terms, this is still slow!

But all of this data is useless unless we know what it means. Thankfully, with better computers come better analytic technologies. For example, a dataset of 100 oil wells would have taken one of BP’s geologists up to a month to analyse; however, the development of big data technologies allows the analysis of a 5000-well dataset to be completed in just a few seconds.

Bigger, better, and faster processing power will help scientists to map more accurately what lies beneath the Earth’s surface, and make more informed decisions rapidly, holding huge potential for the energy industry.

Better batteries

We all know the feeling of mild panic at finding yourself being stranded in town with a mobile phone at 10% battery life, and fervently wishing for the invention of a battery that can last. For the transport industry, this is a major problem. With a drive towards cutting emissions and improving fuel efficiency, innovation in developing long-lasting, rechargeable batteries would be revolutionary in the field of electric cars.

The batteries of tomorrow are expected to triple their energy capacity by 2025, with smaller batteries cutting the weight of vehicles, and reducing running costs. Developments in battery technology are likely to increase the use of hybrid and electric vehicles, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and predictions suggest that in as few as ten years, battery-operated vehicles will account for around 10% of global car sales.

Fuel cells

A second alternative to research into long-lasting car batteries is the development of fuel cells for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells work in much the same way as batteries, converting chemical energy into electrical energy. Unlike a battery, however, the fuel cell will continuously produce electricity for as long as fuel is supplied, without losing its charge. As a result, fuel cells are both cleaner and more efficient than using combustion methods, producing only water as waste.

One of the major limitations of battery-powered electric vehicles is a short battery life, coupled with a lengthy recharging period. Fuel cells, by comparison, will produce energy for as long as fuel is provided, giving a range of up to 500km, and alleviating the ‘range anxiety’ of traditional electric vehicle batteries.

The use of fuel cells in vehicles has however met with several problems, and the current running cost stands at around four times the cost of a conventional vehicle. In order to make the fuel cell a more viable solution to low cost, low emission vehicles, further research is needed into safely and cost-effectively mass producing, and storing, hydrogen fuel. If these obstacles were to be surmounted, the fuel cell would be well on its way to transforming the energy sector.

3D printing

3D printing, or the process of additive manufacturing, was first proposed during the 1980s and has since become a household term. Until recently, this technology has been restricted to creating prototypes and scale models before manufacturing; however, the market for individually tailored parts produced at a low volume is growing.

For the energy industry, there is a huge opportunity to embrace 3d printing, allowing for the rapid production of complex components in remote or even offshore locations. This would save time and increase efficiency, and with new developments improving the range of materials that can be printed, the opportunities for energy can only grow.

For the full list of innovations tipped to change the energy industry of the future, read the feature in BP Magazine.

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