Helping gas companies reduce their greenhouse emissions – Q&A 260

Over the next decade, oil and gas companies have a huge challenge and major responsibility to significantly reduce their carbon footprint and address climate change.

Ernesto Santibanez Borda, a PhD researcher in the Earth Sciences & Engineering Department at Imperial College is looking to help these companies choose the best method for limiting emissions associated with using and transporting natural gas. We interviewed him about his work with Professor Anna Korre.

1. What problem you are trying to solve/address in your PhD?

We recognize that hydrocarbon companies are faced with an enormous task to figure out how to reduce their emissions dramatically in a cost-effective and efficient way while providing energy for increased world consumption. While predictions from the International Energy Agency (IEA) outline gas consumption growth as the fastest among all fossil fuels resulting in a possible gas-carbon demand parity by 2040, there are still significant emissions from natural gas.

My PhD research focuses on the natural gas supply chain including the stages of production, processing, and transport through pipelines or as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). It is about developing an intelligent approach to choosing which technologies could be adopted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in a cost efficient way.

The idea is to also consider market conditions and policy related uncertainties to help strategic decision-making.

2. That sounds like a big project. So, what steps are involved in your PhD?

My PhD can be divided into three main parts.

First, I will use the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) methodology to understand the full extent of greenhouse gas emissions in the natural gas supply chain. This involves assessing all environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the natural gas supply chain from extraction through to distribution.

I am using models developed by the MERG (Minerals, Energy and Environmental Engineering Research Group) at Imperial College but I will also develop new ways. These models differ from the majority available in the market as there is a greater degree of accuracy in the estimation, most of the emissions are calculated based on material balance principles (which means accounting for material entering and leaving a system), and engineering calculations.

The second part is establishing the costs associated with each technological path using the Life Cycle Costing (LCC) methodology. When companies try to estimate their emissions through LCA, they can often see ways to reduce their emissions by adopting specific technologies. But in order to be able to implement those changes it is important to cost all those options.

The final step is to determine the best combination of technologies and practices that minimise environmental impacts and costs in order to aid industry decision-making. We are doing this  through multi-objective optimisation which is a technique that models a problem mathematically and minimises or maximises mutually excluding objectives. In this case, we want to see how low the emissions can be, if we spend a specific amount of money.

3. Is your PhD part of a larger body of work at Imperial College? Who else are you working with?

Yes, I work within Department of Earth Science and Engineering in the MERG group underthe supervision of Professor Anna Korre and Dr. Zhenggang Nie.

The developed models are currently being tested in different case studies, some of them provided by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative project in which we are involved in, and the results will be compared with the reported emissions/costs and benchmark values from literature to validate our results. We also want to analyse case studies from the Brazilian natural gas value chain.

I have also been working with the Sustainable Gas Institute, and using a lot of data from Dr Paul Balcombe’s paper (Methane & CO2 emissions from the natural gas supply chain).

4. Why are you concentrating on LNG?

Projections by IEA state that by 2040 inter-regional gas trade can expand by up to more than 40%, and LNG’s share of inter-regional gas trade can increase from 10 to 50%.

In addition, we believe that an optimisation assessment of the environmental impacts and costs of the LNG processes has still not been thoroughly addressed considering the impacts it has on other parts of the natural gas value chain.

5. What motivated you to work in energy research?

Energy is vital to the international economy, but there are still so many challenges; improving efficiency, and reducing our environmental impact as well as meeting increasing global demand.

I found the research around finding ways to meet global demand while making sure we keep to the environmental targets set by the latest international commitments quite fascinating. Seeing companies in the energy sector get involved also encouraged me to join this research area.

Finally, I like the work of integrating different knowledge disciplines such as hydrocarbon processing, operations research, and environmental assessment in order to produce a tool that could be used to make intelligent decisions that have a wide impact.

6. What attracted you or influenced you to becoming an engineer?

At secondary school, I realized I was interested in maths and science, so it was natural to start looking at careers that are related to those subjects, and engineering specifically caught my attention because it is practical and helps model, and find reasonable solutions for daily problems faced by individuals, companies or the society.

The fact that it does not just involve hard calculations, but can also integrate other disciplines into the decision-making also fascinated me because it opened a whole world of options on how to approach a specific problem.


Ernesto Santibanez Borda is a Brazilian and Chilean national. He holds a BSc Engineering from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, and MSc Petroleum Engineering from Imperial College London.

He also has 2 years of experience as production planning engineer in Escondida mine, operated by BHP Billiton (Chile)

By Zara Qadir

The Sustainable Gas Institute

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