Lessons From Mars for Oil and Gas Young Professionals

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If you work in the oil and gas industry, you deserve to feel as inspired as an aerospace engineer working at NASA or SpaceX. Providing energy to the world is no easy feat, and that’s what the oil and gas industry has delivered in the past 100 years: the prosperity that we enjoy today.

There is a problem, though. While continued progress has led to humanity flourishing, we’ve ignored the cumulative consequences of burning fossil fuels. CO2 emissions led to global warming, which is in turn contributing to climate change. This problem has dictated the need for an emission-free or low-carbon “energy transition.” What does that mean for you as a young professional in the oil and gas industry? Will you have a job? Will you stay relevant? The answer depends on you and your ability to adapt and diversify your skills to include carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCUS—probably the most important oil and gas acronym in the years to come.

The common energy transition story that we’ve been told is that eventually renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) will replace oil and gas completely. Let’s take a step back and think about that. What’s the problem with oil and gas? CO2 emissions. CCUS allows us to turn this problem into an opportunity by using CO2 as a feedstock for production of the same fuels and chemicals that we have been making from oil and gas. This is the only way to fundamentally solve the industry’s emission problem, and it allows us the chance to stay relevant during our transition to low-carbon energy.

As much as CO2 is a problem for the oil and gas industry, it’s been a blessing for the space industry. NASA scientists have been thinking about CO2 as a resource for a long time, using the C in CO2 as the carbon source for production of life support resources in space. This field is called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

The source of CO2 in space is from the breath of astronauts (exhaling 1 kg of CO2 per day, per person). You may think that’s not a lot of CO2, but a crew of four on an 8-month mission to Mars will generate close to 1 ton of CO2, which can be used to produce glucose as a calorie source or as a building block for biomanufacturing of other complex nutrients and even pharmaceuticals. Mars is where this gets interesting, since about 96% of the air in Mars is CO2. Both NASA and SpaceX have plans to use this CO2 to produce the fuels required for the trip back. This will be done in propellant plants that operate based on the Sabatier reaction. To learn more about this, you can see a video presentation from my talk at Tudor Pickering Holt D2 Energy Disruption conference.

What if we could apply these learnings from the space industry and bring them to the oil and gas industry for improving CCUS? Let’s dig into that and look at some tangible examples.

Currently, CCUS is used within the oil and gas industry for CO2 sequestration and enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Geologic carbon sequestration looks at carbon storage below the surface. But CO2 sequestration doesn’t generate revenue for companies; and that’s where EOR comes in. EOR is important because it allows oil companies to increase the amount of oil that can be recovered by as much as 60%. Using industrial CO2 emissions for EOR provides an opportunity for collaboration between oil companies and other entities that are emitting CO2 such as power plants, ethanol production plants, and refineries.

Though CO2 sequestration and EOR have an established legacy in oil and gas, using CO2 as feedstock to make fuels and chemicals is new. The good news is that the methods to capture CO2 from direct outputs such as flue gas and even the atmosphere itself continue to increase in efficiency and economic viability. New utilization technologies have the power to convert the collected gas into other usable forms, such as intermediate chemicals like ethylene, for example.

Looking ahead, there are two areas in the CCUS sector that offer significant promise:

  • Depending on the concentration of CO2 in the stream, current capture technologies could demand a lot of energy. Once captured, the utilization process itself is also energy-intensive given that CO2 is a stable molecule and not an ideal feedstock when compared to other compounds such as carbon monoxide. The efficiency between CO2 capture and utilization can be greatly improved by integrating both processes to spend energy once, thereby increasing the overall profitability of the business models for both capture and utilization.

  • There is also significant opportunity to integrate and further close the carbon loop between EOR in the subsurface and on-surface carbon capture and utilization.

CCUS may be a new technology, but it has the potential to reduce the global carbon footprint of the oil and gas industry while creating new revenue streams. The generation of the oil professionals that will make this happen are today’s young professionals—yes, you!

What Can You Do as a Young Professional in the Oil and Gas Industry?

I know that these are tough times. You may be feeling uncertain about the future of the industry. Maybe you were caught in the recent layoffs and thinking about changing industries altogether, or maybe you are a millennial like me or a recent petroleum engineering graduate or student. Here is my humble advice to you: Educate yourself about CCUS and apply your knowledge and skills in a carbon-negative direction, because that's the future we should be creating.

Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I don’t think he was trying to be inspirational; this is just very true. So, it's up to us to envision a thriving future for the oil and gas industry for 2050 and beyond—an industry that may look nothing like how it is today—and put in the work to make it happen. We should awaken the explorer within each of us in the oil and gas industry and invent our way into the future that we want and the world needs.

Moji Karimi is the cofounder and CEO at Cemvita Factory, a biotech startup on a mission to create a carbon-negative future by transforming CO2 into valuable products. He is a multidisciplinary entrepreneur and engineer who helps ideate, develop, and commercialize breakthrough technology. Karimi has a proven track record of taking ideas to market, both at big companies and startups. His experiences range from developing advanced deepwater drilling methods to nature-inspired technology with applications in the energy, mining, and aerospace industries. Karimi holds BS and MS degrees in drilling and petroleum engineering, respectively.

[The article was sourced from the author by TWA editor Stephen Forrester.]


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