Five years ago the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a major blow out. Eleven workers died in the accident and 11 others were injured. Oil and gas gushed out for months from the broken pipe at the floor of the sea. Over 600 miles of the coastline was affected.  Fishery and tourism, two major industries of the region, suffered enormous losses.  The impact on the environment was catastrophic.

The actual quantity of the spill was difficult to ascertain initially, and estimates ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 barrels per day. After the fact, it was determined that the maximum rate of spill was about 62,000 barrels a day and over the three-month period up to 4.9 million barrels of oil poured out. Even though this figure is questioned as it is important to the litigation and fines that BP has to pay. BP’s total liability for the disaster is still uncertain.  But it has already reserved $42 billion to pay fines, compensate victims and clean up the mess.

So what does the Deepwater Horizon disaster have to do with battery technology?  Last June, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting in Houston organized by DNV-GL focused on applications for energy storage systems in the offshore oil and gas market.  DNV-GL has since established an industry initiative called Joint Industry Program (JIP) for Hybrid Power in the Offshore Domain to pursue further work in this area (contact Davion Hill for more information or to participate, at davion.m.hill@dnvgl.com). One of the more interesting discussions at the meeting was about the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the hope of the oil industry that battery or ultracapacitor technologies might help it prevent or mitigate similar incidents in the future.

According to one of the participants at the DNV-GL meeting, one of the most serious problems BP faced in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blow out was that the explosion severed power to all monitoring devices located on the ocean floor.  One of the reasons why the amount of leakage is still uncertain is because the monitoring devices that should have been able to measure that leakage, and which might have helped to mitigate it early on, all relied on power tethered from the surface. The oil industry is therefore extremely interested in energy storage systems that can supply reliable back-up power for monitoring devices located on the sea floor.  Given that BP’s liability for not having such a technology in place is $42 billion and counting, price is not much of an object in identifying a solution.

Of course, there is a reason why the BP monitoring devices did not have back-up battery power systems five years ago.   The ocean floor 5,000 feet beneath the surface is an extremely hostile environment.  Low temperatures and high pressures will challenge traditional battery systems to deliver the long-term reliable power that the oil industry needs and demands.  As drilling platforms move into every deeper waters, this challenge only grows.  But battery companies and technology developers that can address these challenges will find a ready market for their solutions and their innovations.

Much of the focus on advanced batteries seems to center on electrified vehicles and stationary energy storage on the grid. But it is important to remember that some of the most important new markets for advanced battery technology may be located in improbable places—such as 5,000 feet under water.