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The oil and gas industry has traditionally been found wanting when it comes to spending enough money on R&D resources, but the importance of accessing academic brainpower has never been greater.
The need to research and develop materials for use in harsh environments in ultra-deep water, the Arctic, and downhole is paramount. During recent years there has been immense financial pressure on companies to cut their R&D commitments.
Khalid A. Al-Falih, president and CEO of Saudi Aramco – no mean spender on research itself – admitted early this year that the oil sector “needed to face the reality that our industry lags behind when it comes to R&D spending.”
The importance of using academic expertise within universities to develop new technologies and form lasting relationships has long been recognized. The UK’s universities have a scientific and engineering tradition of inventing or developing many technologies and discoveries that have been commercialized in the North Sea.
It was gratifying, therefore, to hear that BP is sinking US $100 million into a 10-year program to establish a research center called the BP International Center for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM). The center will lead research aimed at “advancing the fundamental understanding and use of materials across a variety of energy and industrial applications,” according to the company.
Seven primary areas of interest to our industry will be tackled – structural materials, smart coatings, functional materials, catalysis, membranes, energy storage, and energy harvesting. The initial phase will cover:
Smart coatings for increased protection from the elements and improved structural life as well as protecting pipelines and offshore platforms from corrosion; and
Membranes and other structures for separation, filtration, and purification of oil and gas, water, and chemicals in production, refining, and biofuels processes and petrochemicals.
BP CEO Bob Dudley hopes this research effort will, among other things, increase the use of lighter metals and composites for structures and products.
The BP-ICAM will be modeled on a “hub and spoke” structure, with the hub to be within the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. This is an organization that has internationally recognized core strengths in materials, engineering, characterization, collaborative working, and a real-world track record of delivering breakthrough research and engineering applications.
“Advanced materials and coatings will be vital in finding, producing, and processing energy safely and efficiently in the years ahead as energy producers work at unprecedented depths, pressures, and temperatures and as refineries, manufacturing plants, and pipeline operators seek ever better ways to combat corrosion and deploy new materials to improve their operations,” he said. The other spokes in this hub are all world-class institutions – the University of Cam-bridge, the Imperial College of London, and the University of Illinois. As the industry continues to search deeper and colder, the need for new materials, biosciences, electronics, and “smart” systems that can handle these extreme environments is paramount. It is through initiatives such as BP’s ICAM that the industry will meet those needs, and we must hope that other oil companies also will put their money where their mouths are.