Materials innovation will help transform the world’s energy ecosystem

Sarah Haigh, a Professor of Materials Characterisation and Director of bp-ICAM, says this period of adjustment and change has coincided with bp’s announcement to become an integrated energy company.

The multinational oil and gas company has committed to an ambitious target of being “a net zero company by 2050 or sooner and to help the world get to net zero” – and Sarah is convinced materials science and engineering innovation will both be absolutely essential to transform the world’s energy ecosystem to meet global goals. 

Recorded in September 2020

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Lecture transcript

Hello, I'm Sarah Haigh, Professor at the School of Materials at Manchester and Director of the bp International Centre for Advanced Materials, or bp-ICAM, and I'm speaking today as a contributor to The University of Manchester's COVID Catalysts lecture series. I started as Director of ICAM on the first of July, so in the middle of the UK lockdown, and at a really exciting time for bp; and I'll reflect on both aspects over the next few minutes.

To give some background, the bp-ICAM is a $100M investment by bp into an academic-industrial partnership between bp and four universities, including Manchester. The centre is focussed on fundamental and applied research with the goal being to meet the current and future materials challenges within bp and the energy industry.

We have over 200 active researchers and I think everyone will have been affected by the move to working from home in some way or other. While this may have been welcomed by those with lengthy commutes, it has been difficult on those who have found themselves isolated or with additional caring responsibilities due to COVID-induced school closures or the loss of family or paid support. The bp-ICAM Hub is based in Manchester and when the University closed the hub staff moved to weekly "Zoom" check-ins, as well as regular scheduled and "drop-in" meetings and "Teams" project updates with bp. We were able to offer more flexible working patterns and I hear that the quality of the coffee has improved.

To support our researchers, we have tried to be as flexible as possible with support where we are aware individuals have been disproportionately affected. For example, in one project two students lost their family childcare arrangements due to lockdown restrictions. In their case we were able to support their return to productivity by transferring unused travel budget (from cancelled conferences) to support childcare costs.

The lockdown has also changed the way we communicate our research, with this year's bp-ICAM conference being held online. This is the first year we have done this, but despite some downsides, there are clear advantages, as people no longer have to travel long distances to hear about the latest discoveries, hopefully making it a more accessible platform. We've also seen an increased attendance at our open monthly webinar series - with most of our previous seminars available on YouTube - just search for bp-ICAM.

It is important to mention that the pandemic has strongly affected worldwide energy demand, which together with the global evidence of climate change is focussing global interest on transitioning to a more sustainable energy model. This year, bp's new CEO, Bernard Looney announced moves to change from 111 years as an international oil company to a new future as an integrated energy company. The company has committed to an ambition of being "a net zero company by 2050 or sooner and to help the world get to net zero"

In the last months, bp announced some of the "big changes" they are planning by 2030, including:

  • a 10-fold increase in low carbon investment to around $5 billion per year.
  • a 20-fold increase in developed net renewable generating capacity, to 50 gigawatts.
  • a near 10-fold increase in EV charging points to over 70,000
  • a 40% reduction in oil and gas production - becoming more focused, more resilient and higher value.

These really are "big" changes. As Bernard said at the 2020 bp week conference "First and foremost, our new strategy is going to transform bp into a very different company. Not overnight given our size and scale. But fast, because the world needs change. And importantly - we want to be part of that change." I'm really excited to be working with bp as it makes this change.

I am a material scientist (and so could be considered to be biased) but I think it is clear that material science and engineering innovation are absolutely essential if we are to change the world’s energy ecosystem. Towards this aim the bp-ICAM developed a new low carbon research theme in 2019, focused on researching the fundamental material science and materials technologies needed to support the transition to a carbon neutral economy. In June we put out a call for low carbon based projects on the topics of fast charging, hydrogen, and CO2 conversion and received an amazing response, with 50 great ideas submitted, many from researchers who were entirely new to bp-ICAM. Some of these have been shortlisted for the full proposal stage and we expect to see six new projects funded in this area by the end of 2020.

The three focus topics for this call were based on where we see key material challenges in low carbon. Fast charging is one of the main problems that is facing widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Although electric cars now have the battery life close to matching the range of petrol cars, it is far quicker to fill up a petrol car. Even Tesla's "supercharging" charge points take half an hour to add 200miles to the battery. Bringing this time down makes electric vehicles much more attractive, and provides further incentive for both individuals and businesses to switch to electric.

Nonetheless we recognise that sometimes battery technology may not be suitable for a specific purpose such as in aeroplanes in which case physical fuel may be needed. For example I've been working on a bp project where the reactions we are studying are being used in a pilot plant in Nevada to convert household rubbish (municipal solid waste) into jet engine fuel - with an 80% reduction in carbon emissions compared to conventional fuels. An alternative approach is to move to a hydrogen fuelled economy. Hydrogen is a clean burning fuel and has the potential to replace natural gas and is therefore crucial in areas where battery technology may not be suitable. A lot of hydrogen is currently produced from fossil fuels, so we are looking at ways of producing it cleanly and storing it safely.

The last focus area of the recent project call was CO2 conversion. Since CO2 is likely to continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future, one way of mitigating its effects is to convert back to a useable fuel.

I'm confident bp-ICAM researchers will deliver amazing things in all these areas in low carbon. I'm really looking forward to working with them and bp to deliver the materials solutions needed for a sustainable future with reduced carbon emissions to meet society’s net zero ambitions.