All About Blockchain

Novel Blockchain Applications in the Energy Sector | Soheil Saraji

December 20, 2023 The UBRI Podcast from Ripple Season 6 Episode 4
All About Blockchain
Novel Blockchain Applications in the Energy Sector | Soheil Saraji
Show Notes Transcript

Continuing our conversation about using blockchain on our global path toward sustainability.

Listen to this rich discussion with Soheil Saraji, University of Wyoming’s Associate Professor of Energy and Petroleum Engineering in the College of Engineering and Physical Science. Audience will learn how we are utilizing blockchain for potential forward focused blockchain applications in the energy industry.  

You can deepen your understanding with Saraji's latest book titled Blockchain Technology in Oil and Gas Industry.

Lauren Weymouth: 00:00 Hello, I'm Lauren Weymouth leading UBRI, Ripple's University Blockchain Research Initiative, and your host of this podcast.  All About Blockchain reveals what blockchain is good for, what current problems it solves across various sectors to improve our lives. This is our final episode of 2023, a year that has seen huge use case pushes. And today we're gonna shine a light on the impact blockchain applications are having in the energy sector.

We've invited engineering professor, Soheil Saraji, to the show today, co-director of the Hydrocarbons Lab at the University of Wyoming. With over 18 years of research experience and subsurface energy extraction, storage, and carbon geosequestration. He is focusing on enterprise, on the intersection of blockchain and energy sustainability. Soheil, welcome to All About Blockchain.

Soheil Saraji: 00:54 Hi, Lauren. Thank you for inviting me. I'm looking forward to our conversation today.

Lauren Weymouth: 00:58 Yeah. So let's jump right in. You're at the University of Wyoming's Department of Petroleum Engineering. Now, when I go to Google, it turns up 18 departments across the US that have this focus. What makes Wyoming's program unique?

Soheil Saraji: 01:10 Okay. So first of all, we are one of the largest, uh, graduate programs with about more than 40 PhD students in our department currently, uh, pursuing their degrees. but I guess what makes us very unique is our attention or focus on, on new technologies, on how that impact the industry. For example, we are about to launch our new master's program that has different specialization areas, and two of those specialization areas are blockchain and data analytics. and we are developing many courses under these two different specializations to make sure our students get educated on these,new upcoming technological areas that will most likely impact their future in the industry.

Lauren Weymouth: 01:48 Fantastic to hear that you're incorporating a new master's program. Now, you've been researching the oil and gas industry for almost 20 years. What about blockchain made you move forward with this focus?

Soheil Saraji: 1:59 To be honest, blockchain was a side hobby for me. I started coming across the technology in about 2019 time and have been getting involved with it and learning more and more. And I a- actually attended a hackathon online at some point.  that was an interesting experience. I never, never done that before in my life. But, when it clicked for me was a few years later when during start of the COVID time when the price of oil dropped, below zero, so it become negative at some point in time, and that was because of the impact of COVID and the low demand for the energy, that made me think a little bit more about the vulnerability of the industry to different areas, especially, in sustainability area, and how that impacts the future of the industry in the next few decades.

And at some point this challenge in the industry with this new technology coming up kinda clicked in my mind that there might be applications that we can use blockchain to improve, especially in the sustainability area in the industry. And that's where, you know, everything started for me.

Lauren Weymouth: 02:52 And how would you go about introducing these applications of blockchain in the field of petroleum and energy?

Soheil Saraji: 02:58 so the first step I typically take into teaching blockchain is to try to separate cryptocurrency from blockchain and emphasize that blockchain as a standalone technology could have different applications other than cryptocurrency.

From there on, it's all about getting a little bit of a background about blockchain, how it works, but then dive deeper into the application side and bring some application from startups, some other projects that are working in this area to bring students to the understanding of how this technology that is, relatively opaque to them, it's not very easy to understand, how does it apply first. And I think after catching their attention, then we can go deeper into how the technology actually works and the background.

Lauren Weymouth: 03:36 I love that you first distinguish cryptocurrency from blockchain. I mean, blockchain is the underlying technology that crypto uses, but there are so many other use cases that we're proving on this podcast alone for their use.

Soheil Saraji: 03:46 Yeah.

Lauren Weymouth: 03:50 okay. Maybe looking specifically at improving traditional methods of oil and natural gas extraction, in your research, how does blockchain technology help?

Soheil Saraji: 03:58 o to me, blockchain is more of a management tool rather than engineering tool. so it might not directly impact engineering methodology that we have been using, but it will impact our management, product tracking, and also hopefully new markets that blockchain can, uh, help the industry to develop in the future. in that regard, we are looking into main characteristics of blockchain transparency, decentralization, immutability, and security, and looking into the energy sector to see which areas of the energy sector can benefit from these properties of blockchain and that could be a potential application for blockchain in the energy industry.

Lauren Weymouth: 04:46 Now, you're in the engineering department, but it sounds like you're integrating knowledge from different fields, such as energy economics and computer science to look at how blockchain applications are affecting the energy sector.

Soheil Saraji: 04:47 That's correct. As a matter of fact, the first time I looked into, uh, bringing blockchain to my research portfolio was a competition at the university when they were looking into out-of-the-box ideas to support for the initial research. And there I developed a team from different faculty from computer science to philosophy, to economics, to education to submit the application regarding carbon credit ecosystem on blockchain and how that impacts different areas. And we were one of the winners of the idea.

I see that to be, the next, improvement, on research in this area is bringing people together from different disciplines to solve these problems that are typically at intersection. The problems that blockchain solves, in my opinion, at least in my field, are typically at intersection. For example, intersection of environment and energy or intersection of energy security and, IT. And therefore, we always need collaboration in this area.

Lauren Weymouth: 05:41 So good to hear that, and congratulations on the win. back to oil and gas extraction, you were talking about how it's not just the fundamentals but the transparency and the security and the immutability, decentralization of blockchain helps with managing and analyzing data. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Soheil Saraji: 05:48 Yes. Blockchain as a collaborative technology will allow or facilitate collaboration, especially between parties that are not necessarily trusting each other fully. And that's when in the field development there are different parties involved that want to share data with each other, there are certain important data in our field that have the properties to be exploited in this way. For example, seismic data, these are the data from the sonic wave that we send underground and we receive them. Therefore, we can understand what the structures underground look like and whether they have  petroleum  stored underground or not.

And, and other things such as  rock samples, fluid samples, the hi- history of these type of samples and who owns them at one time and who did the measurements on them, what is the history of extraction all the way to data gathering and analysis.  The area that I'm personally interested in is emission data. I think that's the part where the sustainability in oil and gas and the blockchain come together very nicely.

Lauren Weymouth: 06:53 Okay. So we can hear how this tech enhances the efficiency of oil and gas extraction. Are there examples of how it helps reduce the environmental impact?

Soheil Saraji: 07:02 Absolutely. I alluded to a little bit earlier one of the area that the industry is working on very, strongly at this point in time, and there external forces to even push this further, which, which comes from the customer sides, customer demand, comes from potential regulations coming up for the industry, and also from the investors or funders of the industry that want the industry to stick with ESG goals that they put forward for themselves. And therefore, one of the areas would be emissions. Emission monitoring, emission reporting is the area that the industry needs to do better on, and blockchain can allow us to provide transparency, immutability, and auditability to this particular area.

Lauren Weymouth: 07:42 So if the companies that are committing to the ESG standards utilize blockchain, it'll help them as a tool to actually achieve these standards?

Soheil Saraji: 07:51 Absolutely. And there are examples of that. We had one small company in Wyoming which was producing natural gas, but their footprint of methane emissions during their entire operation was orders of magnitude below the national standard. First of all, they developed a monitoring system on their field to be able to cache this data. They hired a third party to certify them. They put the data on blockchain, and they were  just about to sell their gases with a premium price because they could prove that their gas has a low carbon footprint compared to the average gas sold out there. The company's currently being purchased by a bigger company, and they are doing very well. I think this might be an area that oil and gas would move towards, towards this particular type of, we call it low-carbon fuels.

Lauren Weymouth: 08:35 That's a really good example. All right. So we can hear the benefits. What are some of the biggest challenges in applying blockchain?

Soheil Saraji: 08:41 There are certain challenges that I guess these are blockchain challenges, but they're also certain challenges specific for the energy industry. One that I want to highlight is regulation, in blockchain, you know? As blockchain itself is attached to cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency currently is a very gray area, it's very hard to anticipate the regulations around it. Therefore, applications of blockchain itself also impacted by that uncertainty in the regulatory area.

The other area that I want to emphasize on it is standardization, interoperability. This is, you know, if we want blockchain to become a big infrastructure for the future of any industry, we need to be able to connect different blockchains together. We need to be able to standardize, you know, communication between different blockchains. and the specific, problem with the energy industry, which also I would assume other industries will have the same problem, is education, education of the management, mid-management, upper management, and the workforce that are working in the industry to understand the technology, understand its benefits, and learn how to apply it in their day-to-day life.

Lauren Weymouth: 09:43 Well, you're absolutely correct how you've framed this conversation with these are blockchain challenges across all of blockchain use in any industry, right, where we're dealing with regulation. It's not just a gray area, it's different in every country, geographic jurisdiction, having to understand the policies and regulations that are coming forth or not coming forth, where there's no clarity like here in the US. 

Lauren Weymouth: And then believing that it's a multichain universe and making sure that these blockchains, that many of them are built to have different use cases and be strong in different areas, that they communicate well, that they interop. Right. How do you see blockchain technology empowering consumers in the energy market, especially in terms of pricing and energy source choices.

Soheil Saraji: 10:21 Perfect. This is a great question. Considering the energy transition, the industry is moving towards the direction of developing other alternative type of fuels. We can call them low-carbon fuels. We can sometimes call them digital fuels, meaning that these are the fuels that have a digital certificate with them that tells you exactly where they were produced, how much was the carbon footprint of the production, and all the important information, different environmental aspects of the production. this information can allow the users, other s- electric companies that buys this material or if it's end user that is using these fuels to know exactly what they are getting.

And also from the industry perspective, it allows the industry to develop another market for premium fuels that are potentially provably low-carbon footprint. And there are customers that are willing to pay extra, a few cents extra, for the energy to make sure that they are sustainable, they are more environmentally friendly.

Lauren Weymouth: 11:18 Yeah, that's a clear example of consumer impact, putting information and choices, power in the hands of the user to be able to see what they're buying and what's being traded and probably also be able to choose renewable energy sources. So we can see that you've been heavily doing your research and you're very involved in this field. Do you have colleagues, other professors around the country at the other petroleum engineering schools that are incorporating blockchain in this field of study?

Soheil Saraji: 11:42 You know, I'm not aware of anybody else that works in the same exact field. It would be great to have other colleagues to work on and collaborate with. It's a very, very new technology, especially in my field. It might have been quite a few years that in the fintech sector, but in the energy industry, blockchain is very, very new. And everybody is moving very slow towards that technology. So maybe in the future we'll have more research in this area, but at this point in time, I'm not aware of any other faculty in the United States that is working in the same area.

Lauren Weymouth: 12:11 Well, kudos to you for being a pioneer and that's probably why this year you published a book examining blockchain in oil and gas appropriately titled Sustainable Oil and Gas Using Blockchain. Can you give us the cliff notes on that book?

Soheil Saraji: 12:26 Sure. Uh, you know, the book is the outcome of the, the early experience I mentioned to you earlier in the podcast that, uh, I, I found blockchain and sustainable in oil and gas to have a really good overlap. It's a really sweet spot for us to deploy this particular technology. During this book, we partnered with the different entities from academia and outside academia to explore different applications that blockchain could have in the energy sector, specifically with the sustainability in mind.we have authors from across the universe from Malaysia to England, to United States, to  one of the authors was from Saudi Arabia. He moved eventually to Canada. And we all were passionate about blockchain, applying blockchain energy. And each person had a potential application in mind.

We looked into different applications. One would be emissions, like methane emissions, for example. The other would be  sustainable aviation fuels sustainable plastics, and a lot of other applications that we explored in the book. The book was meant to be  thought-provoking. Rather than providing a solution, it was more the thought-provoking concept to the industry and to the blockchain technologies outside of the industry to know what they can do within the industry. So hopefully we will have a little bit more awareness about this technology and its application in the energy sector in the coming years.

Lauren Weymouth: 13:44 Well, you just provoked my brain. What is an example of a sustainable aviation fuel?

Soheil Saraji: 13:49 Great question. The sustainable aviation fuels are low carbon footprint fuels that are certified so that we know how much carbon we are burning by burning those fuels. Therefore, we can calculate our carbon footprint per, per flight, per person. Now, they might not be absolutely zero, but they are much, much less than their regular  fuel that we used to burn in flights.

Lauren Weymouth: 14:14 So this is an example of the industry that's being called into focus more and more on the environmental, societal, and governmental impacts to show how they are committed to managing the successful transition. Earlier, you mentioned a smaller company getting gobbled up by a larger company. In your opinion, do you see this industry focusing on and, and taking seriously the ESG standards?

Soheil Saraji: 14:37 I believe so. I have, during the course of the book that we mentioned earlier, I have interviewed, many experts within the industry. My understanding is that there is a real genuine, organic movement from within to make industry more responsible, more sustainable for the future. These efforts had led to, to different initiatives in the industry. One of them was the one that I mentioned for a small company in Wyoming, but more coming. However,, if I wanna distinguish, I would think smaller companies are probably moving faster than bigger companies, and those are the one that are probably doing most of the innovation in this area.

Lauren Weymouth: 15:20 Of course, they're probably more agile and have less, you know, big board of directors to pass things through.

Soheil Saraji: 15:20 That is correct, yes.

Lauren Weymouth: 15:22 (laughs) You've had over a dozen research publications and conference presentations. Who is your audience when you're writing these white papers?

Soheil Saraji: 15:29 my traditional field is subsurface engineering or subsurface energy extraction and storage, and we are targeting a very technical group. In the blockchain side I guess that's kind of made me  come out of my comfort zone and start reaching out to other audience. This audience is mostly mid-management, I guess, in my field, to convince them about the applications or the properties of the blockchain that can help them. Also  blockchain is typically a good management tool, right, rather than engineering tool. So we are targeting that area, management and maybe IT sectors after energy sector rather than the technical on-the-ground engineering team. I'm waiting for some feedbacks out of the book or some other publication to see how it is received by that sector.

Lauren Weymouth: 16:12 I'm so glad to hear you say that, that you're looking to and progressively opening up your target audience to a more general audience. I mean, we cannot focus enough on the amount of education needed to get this technology mainstream and used widely.  With that said, tell us about some of the courses you've developed to educate the students on your campus and, and maybe even beyond.

Soheil Saraji: 16:31 Perfect. I have developed an introductory course called Blockchain Energy. It's an undergraduate course and the purpose of the course is to bring awareness to the engineering students about blockchain and its application in the fields, especially relevant to the energy, because that's my background. this is the second year that I'm teaching the course. it's been growing and it's been received very well.

I have been asked to develop a second course that is more advanced, more applied, and I'm working on a graduate-level course called Applied Blockchain for Oil and Gas. Hopefully, will be available in 2024 or maybe early 2025, and that course is a case study-based course that we actually work on codes and case studies to develop certain, applications, at least in at the class level applications that we can use for oil and gas. Hopefully, they would develop into bigger applications, maybe research programs and so forth in the future.

Lauren Weymouth: 17:24 Clearly, it must've been successful if they asked you to develop a second one. I kinda wanted to learn more about the response of the students. Have students gone on to maybe after they graduate look for work in this field?

Soheil Saraji: 17:35 Great question. That is something I'm trying to establish, trying to keep the connections with the students to see if they will use this or not. I would think that I'd di- divide the students to different categories that are attending this course. Certain students are just curious. They come in, they learn a little bit about blockchain. They might not even touch blockchain for the rest of their life, but they at least have something to talk in a social setting when somebody brings blockchain. So that's one group.

24:10 The second group would be the group that are very interested. They come in. They sometimes have ideas that they want to even explore, and they talk to me about it maybe a startup idea and things like that. And hopefully, those students will be supported by university. University has certainbincentives for students who develop startups and other type ofbcompanies, and hopefully they will be directed to that direction to eventually we could see some applications coming out ofbthat group.

And the third group are typically graduate students that are interested in blockchain. They have projects in that area, and they wanna develop a long-term application or look into certain, inefficiencies in blockchain in the energy sector and try to find solutions for that. So that would be my third group of students in the class.

Lauren Weymouth: 18:43 Well, you have multiple pathways. Well, this question is for the junior talent out there. What advice would you have for the young students interested in blockchain and engineering?

Soheil Saraji: 18:51 My advice to those students is what I try to start my courses with is try to separate blockchain and cryptocurrency because cryptocurrency goes through new cycles. It becomes hyped and then something happens and it becomes very negative. And that sometimes impacts the interest of students  in the technology blockchain. I want them to try to separate these two and look at blockchain as a standalone technology and try to learn as much as they can. There are tons of information online. They can educate themselves. There are now university courses that they can take to learn more about it. And , there are also hackathons that I had experience with. There's very, very helpful interactions with your peers and that are exploring. Try to explore, try to test, try to even come up with ideas, and, uh, see where it takes them.

Lauren Weymouth: 19:38 That's great. Any other impactful or exciting projects that you're currently engaged with that we haven't talked about yet or anything else you'd like our listeners to know about?

Soheil Saraji: 19:46 Sure, yes. I currently have three PhD students who are working on blockchain-related topics.  One of them is  mostly focusing on the oracle problem  in the blockchain, which as you know, when we are connecting this digital technology to the real world the weak point would be that connection. If that connection is not reliable or somebody hacks that connection, then we are putting wrong information on blockchain. How to solve that problem, there are different approaches. There are a lot of research going on in that particular area. His approach is looking into IoT blockchain integration as one of the potential solutions. 

I have two other students, one of them working on bringing blockchain technology to carbon storage and tokenization of the carbon stored underground. This is something that we in Wyoming have been working on, the technology of carbon underground storage. we are a little bit ahead of some other states, I think Wyoming and North Dakota are. And the students is looking into finding a framework to develop calculations for CO2 storage and how to convert that to corresponding digital tokens that could be traded somewhere else.

And the third student is looking into methane emissions and how we can help  companies to certify their meth- methane production, organic natural gas production as a low-impact methane gas that hopefully they can find some customers for.

Lauren Weymouth: 21:02 Well, those are awesome projects. Thank you so much for sharing. And yeah, I mean Wyoming is ahead of other states. You're one of the more crypto-friendly states going. , all right. How do our listeners find out more about your projects or any of these projects?

Soheil Saraji: 21:14 They can go to the University of Wyoming website, search for my name. my email is typically available through all the publications or through the website. Please feel free to send me an email. 

Lauren Weymouth: 21:25 We will definitely make sure to drop your information in the podcast page notes. last question. How do you keep up with blockchain? It's a field that is increasing month on month. I have professors tell me all the time it's impossible to keep up to date with their courses because there's new information coming at them all the time. What are the resources you use to stay on top of what's new in blockchain?

Soheil Saraji: 21:44 Great question. You know  blockchain space is full of noises. There's a lot of information, lot of not really  great information out there. So finding the right resources and trying to learn more is always a challenge . The speed of change is very fast in this field. So I typically listen to podcasts because I drive from and to work for about an hour each side. So I have some time on my hand that  I, I listen to podcasts. And I recently found about your podcast which is great. another good addition to my listening time in the carI also to look an eye or particular people that I know making innovation have good ideas in the field, through Twitter, former Twitter, now X-and also looking into research papers. Unfortunately, the problem with research paper is that the process of publishing a research paper is so long, maybe a year plus, that the information by the time it's published is not necessarily the most up-to-date information. the typical up-to-date information comes out of other sources on the web.

Lauren Weymouth: 22:41 That's great. And Soheil- I don't even know if you know this, but we compile. what we think are the top of the top research papers that comes out of the UBRI program annually, and we publish that on our website under  UBRI Research Highlights Report. And so that just launched in September right before the UBRI Connect Conference.

Soheil Saraji: 22:59 Okay, I did not know that. I will definitely check it out.

Lauren Weymouth: 23:02 Well, climate change is in our faces every day, which is why it's so paramount that smart people like Professor Saraji work on sustainability methods. Soheil, thank you so much for being a pioneer. Thank you for participating in this episode of All About Blockchain and for using this strong technology to tackle challenges across energy, taking initiatives to leverage the benefits of blockchain for good. And we look forward to learning how this use case positively impacts our world.

Soheil Saraji: 23:28 Thank you, Lauren. It was a pleasure.

Lauren Weymouth: 23:30 Listeners, thanks for taking your time and continuous feedback to my email. If you have any questions about this episode or feedback for future episodes, please reach out. Until next time.