BP Institute

Understanding flow – whether it’s of oil, air, lubricants, lava, seawater or CO2 – lies at the heart of Cambridge’s BP Institute.

Our prime interest is in answering fundamental questions about flow. But we’re also looking at how this impacts on ‘real world’ applications because this in turn informs a whole new set of fundamental questions and, if we’re lucky, the development of unforeseen applications.

Professor Andy Woods

Endowed by a £22 million donation from BP, the BP Institute for Multiphase Flow (BPI) was created in 2000 with the explicit intent of hosting research teams from five departments within the University: Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Earth Sciences and Engineering.

Today, a multidisciplinary team of almost 40 academics and students is working to understand how gases and fluids move. Multiphase flow is an area of great interest to BP as it underpins all parts of its business: from enhancing oil recovery to delivering it to customers, and from refining hydrocarbons to investing in a low carbon future.

For the BPI, engagement with BP enriches research in a very practical sense, as Professor Andy Woods, Director, explained: ‘Our close working relationship with BP gives us in-depth exposure to technical challenges in the industry as well as unparalleled access to field data that would be impossible for us to collect. This means that we can frame research directions that are fundamentally interesting to us as academics and can also solve problems that are of relevance to the industry.’

Currently, a large pan-Institute project is analysing the interactions between fluids and solids in oil fields to understand the physical chemistry that controls how much oil can be recovered as a function of the salinity of the water used to pump it from the well. Other projects vary from analysing the molecular basis of how lubricants work to understanding how volcanoes erupt, and from addressing questions about the long-term storage of CO2 in redundant oil wells to determining how you can control heat transfer in buildings through natural convection. This latter research theme led in 2006 to the spin-out company E-Stack, which was set up to commercialise a low energy ventilation system that uses natural convection to keep the interior temperature of buildings buffered from exterior changes.

Professor Woods sees the link between basic research and industrial applications as key to research at BPI. ‘We determine our own research programme and our prime interest is in answering fundamental questions about flow. But we’re also looking at how this impacts on ‘real world’ applications because this in turn informs a whole new set of fundamental questions and, if we’re lucky, the development of unforeseen applications.’

For more information, please contact Professor Andy Woods (andy@bpi.cam.ac.uk) or visit www.bpi.cam.ac.uk/


Energy giant BP looks to its engagement with universities like Cambridge to help stay connected to cutting-edge research in science and technology.

‘As head of BP’s research and technology portfolio, my job is to ensure that BP has the technology it needs to contribute to the world’s future energy demands,’ said David Eyton, BP Group Head of Research & Technology and Executive Sponsor for Cambridge. ‘As part of this, we work closely with a handful of excellent academic centres like Cambridge to keep us plugged into the fast-changing world of science and technology.’

BP’s relationship with the University, which stretches back through the past century, was recently formalised by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). ‘The MoU,’ David Eyton explained, ‘embraces all of our current interactions with Cambridge at a strategic level – from research activities, through policy development and training, to recruitment – as well as laying the groundwork for mutual support and development so that the relationship can fulfil its greatest potential.’ These interactions are being overseen by Andy Leonard in his role as BP’s Vice-President for Cambridge.

Valuing research

BP’s annual spend for 2009 across the University is £3.6 million, of which approximately £1 million is funding technical research and the remainder is principally funding endowments and scholarships.

The company’s main channels of engagement are the BP Institute for Multiphase Flow, established in 2000 with a £22 million endowment from BP, and Judge Business School through the Centre for India and Global Business and the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies. BP has also had long and fruitful collaborations elsewhere in the University, especially with the Bullard Laboratories within the Department of Earth Sciences.

Several areas of applied research activities in Cambridge have brought world-class expertise to bear on practical issues that have reaped immediate benefits for BP, from exploration through to fuels and lubricants. But BP also views fundamental research as strategically important: ‘Although fundamental research can take years from invention to commercialisation, it also has the potential to yield something truly significant,’ said Eyton. ‘The University has a fabulous track record of creating important knowledge and that is one of the reasons we are investing in Cambridge. As a business, we have to stay competitive and invest in areas that we believe will benefit our shareholders.’

Recruiting the best

Recruitment is very much part of the strategic relationship with Cambridge. ‘The people we recruit today could have a profound impact on the company over many decades,’ explained Andy Leonard, ‘so we need to ensure that the highest quality students are exposed to the range of employment opportunities within BP.’ Also of importance, partly from a recruiting perspective, is the large number of scholarship programmes BP runs for research students, mainly in collaboration with the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trusts. This year, BP has made job offers to 20 graduates and 17 interns in Cambridge, as well as partially funding 49 research scholarships.

Recognising opportunities

‘The key to success in strategic relationships is to create situations where there is genuine mutuality,’ said Eyton. ‘We want the relationship with Cambridge to achieve its greatest potential and to progress the strategic aims of the University and BP.’ The company is also keen to support the strengthening of links between universities such as Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tsinghua University in Beijing, predominantly with regard to finding new forms of low carbon energy and moving towards a more sustainable energy landscape in the world.

‘I am a big believer in investing in places like Cambridge that have a proven record of success,’ explained Eyton. ‘I also think that we have even more to discover in terms of opportunities for productive interactions. I’m delighted to say that we are on this journey.’

For more information about BP, please visit www.bp.com/

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