Future of fossil energy

With easy to reach reserves already tapped, energy companies are having to explore alternative areas in the search for fossil fuels.

Very deep sea rigs

Oil companies are having to venture into deeper and deeper water in search of ‘black gold’. In the early 1970s, at the start of the off-shore industry, rigs were operating in just three metres of water. By 1997 when the 600m high Petronius oil platform was launched in the Gulf of Mexico, that depth had increased to 300 metres.

Deep drilling with the Conoco oil rig

The Conoco rig design features a hull that will float, partially submerged, held in position by cables fixed to the ocean floor – a technology developed for North Sea rigs. The forces operating on the structure over its expected twenty-year lifespan will be huge and its engineers must allow for 110mph winds and waves up to 32 metres high.

Deep as this is, current levels of technology could, in theory, allow oil companies to go even deeper and designs are being drawn up which would allow rigs to operate in seas up to 3,000 metres – or two miles – deep.

Drilling for methane hydrate

Japan has the world’s third largest economy but must import almost all of the oil, coal and gas it needs. No surprise then that the country has long had the ambition to find its own independent large scale energy supply.

This dream may soon be realised as recent studies have suggested that the sea bed surrounding Japan’s coast contains huge deposits of methane hydrate – a gas-rich ice-slush which exists on moons such as Titan which orbits Saturn. Estimates suggest that there could be sufficient gas to provide 100 years of fuel.

Government-backed tests have succeeded in extracting ‘industrial quantities’ of natural gas from the ice, though environmentalists have sounded an alarm, fearing the accidental release of vast quantities of greenhouse gas and widespread damage to marine environments.

Britain’s energy gap

To help prevent an energy gap emerging, plans are in place to build another seven coal-fired stations, delivering an additional 10 – 12 GW, despite the fact that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

The much talked-about next generation of nuclear power stations, if built at all, will take somewhere between 12 and 20 years to build, so won't be producing full power until the late 2020s. Renewables, perhaps including the Severn Barrage, could be making electricity faster, perhaps producing as much as 40% of our electricity needs by 2020, but enormous challenges need to be overcome, including planning and grid connection constraints, financial incentives for developers, and the supply chains for materials, equipment and skilled engineers. 

shutterstock_1038500134   300

Engineering Policy Unit 

Our Engineering Policy Unit works closely with members to raise the profile of engineers and engineering potential, to generate discussion and provide thought leadership.

Read our policy-related Themes and reports