Aramco's chief technology officer talks about the future of technology in the energy sector, from mobile carbon capture to blue hydrogen.
A conversation with Ahmad Al-Khowaiter
- Elements Magazine
Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, Aramco’s chief technology officer, is a key figure behind the Company’s drive for sustainability through digitalization. Here, he gives insight into his role, and his vision for the future.
Rebecca Wallace: You have been a significant part of Aramco’s technology and digital transformation. What drives you?
Ahmad Al-Khowaiter: I’m not a scientist, but I have always been a bit of a nerd, always interested in computing and technology. In my early years at Aramco, when oil and gas was more analog, I was involved in introducing technology to our operations, and reveled in my role; not only because it is a passion of mine, but because of the impact it could have within Aramco and the whole industry. As a company, there is huge potential to make a change for good while we continue providing energy for the world. Yes, the world is facing challenges, but as a company we can be part of the solution — with technology being the driving force.
RW: You’ve described yourself as being “technology-agnostic.” What does this mean to you?
AOK: This means I believe that whatever technology works, and whatever creates the greatest value, is best. Having favorites can give you a tendency to latch onto a specific technology for the sake of it, and shoehorning in something because it should work. Being technology-agnostic allows for flexibility; we should be seeking the best technology for the right fit, and be adventurous with it.
As CTO, I believe our goals should allow our ideas to compete with one another — we don’t always want formulaic and rigid methods. So, for example, with ideas to increase yields, or to reduce CO2 from our operations, we want as broad a view of technology as possible, technology to be tested and proven and the best one wins.
RW: Aramco’s digital transformation program capitalizes on advanced analytics, robotics, and 3-D printing. What is IR 4.0's role here?
AOK: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is really interesting – not only in its potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and resource usage, but also for its applications in our conventional business, our downstream growth, and our overall direction as a company.
Take our research; what would have taken years to tackle, at high cost and often with imperfect results, can now be done quicker, and more accurately, allowing for multiple solutions to be explored. It impacts our physical work — such as how and where we drill — and with predictive algorithms our engineers can easily leverage all the data we hold for efficiency.
Put quite simply, AI is a catalyst for our industry. It is hugely transformational in how we work, and consequently the impact we can have on the planet. And it's thanks to the infrastructure that we've developed over the years that Aramco is ahead of the game.
RW: Aramco believes the circular carbon economy is a good framework. We have a number of initiatives, from carbon capture, flare minimization, or carbon curing. What technology really excites you?
AOK: Our crude to chemicals program has just completed a major milestone, and is now ready for commercial deployment. This program will convert crude oil to chemicals, resulting in cheaper chemicals while reducing the carbon footprint associated with the use of our oil. There have been great results and I’m confident that it will revolutionize the production of chemicals from oil.
Also, mobile carbon capture is really exciting news. Our technology has the potential to provide lower carbon transport for everyone, capturing CO2 at source so that it never reaches the air and converting it into energy or recycling into other products or chemicals. We have already built and demonstrated a Class A truck that, in laboratory tests, has the capacity for 50% carbon capture and storage on the truck, and a passenger car that had demonstrated in laboratory tests the capture of 30% of CO2 emissions while it is being driven. Our next phase will be to scale up this technology to potential breakthrough marine carbon capture applications.
RW: You have worked on major projects, such as setting up the Hawiyah Gas Plant in 2001 while pioneering the Master Gas System, and then developing Hawiyah as the pilot plant for Aramco’s carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). What’s the impact of these projects?
AOK: Being part of these projects that have had such major impacts on carbon reduction and the company as a whole, has been fulfilling, to say the least, and combined my drive for greater digitalization with the wider needs of the business.
The Master Gas System was one of the biggest energy projects in Aramco’s history. It captured a previously flared and wasted resource, and both turned it into a product of value and reduced our flaring intensity. Looking back to 2001, my early work integrating the Hawiyah Gas Plant into the system can be seen as a model for two things; it represented the kind of mobilization Aramco can do so well — at the time the project seemed impossible, Hawiyah was the world’s largest onshore oil and gas facility — and it proved again to be the ideal launchpad for the company’s first large scale pilot of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
My involvement in the more recent Hawiyah CCUS project seems to complete the circle, building on what we view CO2 as now – a really important material. It is one of 30 large-scale projects around the world, able to capture and inject large amounts of CO2 into the ground, not only sequestering it away but using it to enhance oil recovery. It also makes great use of 4IR technology, for example, to enable reservoir simulation studies. Up to a third of our research funds are spent on sustainability technologies like this.
I look at both of these – and my time at each — in a similar light; a huge opportunity to increase a technological infrastructure, laying the foundation for economic growth for the Kingdom and business opportunities for the company, and ultimately allowing us to have one of the lowest emissions in the industry.
RW: What do you think the future holds for the oil and gas industry?
AOK: Oil and gas have driven economies and raised the standard of living the world over, and to deny this is shortsighted; the industry has undeniably contributed to the world. But, now, oil and gas can help contribute towards the solutions needed in the next phase; for products, economies, and people. Emissions are the challenge, not the energy source. We can work — and indeed are working — on technology and approaches that address the emissions while keeping the affordable, reliable and abundant energy sources that support global growth.
Take our embrace of the circular carbon economy. Rather than a linear approach — which takes a resource, turns it into a product, and then discards it— we want to emulate what the Earth has been doing for billions of years; reducing, reusing, recycling and removing emissions. I think, as a result of this approach and our attitude towards utilizing IR 4.0 to reduce emissions, that our carbon footprint is one of the lowest in the world among major oil companies.
RW: What are your thoughts on new technologies surrounding renewables or de-carbonization?
AOK: I think that although renewable energy technologies are essential to a carbon-balanced future, we are not yet wholly ready to rely upon them. The path inevitably includes hydrocarbons — meaning that we have to find solutions that retrofit to the existing economy and infrastructure. And I believe that there is no better solution than capturing carbon.
The challenge is that carbon capture costs more than what we're doing now, and the question must be; are we willing to invest in this cost? This ties in with being technology-agnostic – let's go with the best option to reduce emissions, and not shoehorn our beliefs. Policy makers must be willing to support the cost of emissions reduction; we should not care how we reduce those emissions — and it is generally agreed that the lowest-cost option in hard-to-decarbonize areas is CCUS. So, we are excited to be part of this growing conversation, seeing more visibility and viability, as it becomes a potential solution.
RW: What technology do you think will be deployed in the future that we haven’t thought of yet?
AOK: I'm a big believer in hydrogen, and excited to see it attracting growing interest due to its environmental, climate and economic benefits. There have been a few false starts, where even technology experts and scientists have dismissed hydrogen solutions because nothing has happened, but this is the nature of science. Things that take long lose the interest of popular momentum. As the late scientist, Roy Amara, noted, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short-run and underestimate the effect in the long-run.”
Hydrogen has indeed taken longer to mature, but we're now seeing practical applications for hydrogen in decarbonizing hard to abate sectors, such as heavy-duty trucks, marine, iron and steel, and petrochemicals. We also see it contributing for example, to visionary transport applications which can scale up quickly. Take the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft — or the flying car. This definitely seems like something from the future, but it is not unrealistic; indeed, it is becoming more and more a reality with hydrogen, which is more powerful and less limiting than battery power.
I think that there is a great synergy between this flying car concept and hydrogen technology, and with the oil and gas industry, which really took off with the popularity of the motor car. At Aramco, we are looking at producing carbon-free hydrogen from our hydrocarbons — I believe it’s going to be a big part of our future — and so what made oil and gas so popular over a century ago can now be turned to hydrogen resources in the 21st century … a far-reaching idea, but not farfetched.