Yuri Sebregts EVP Technology
Yuri Sebregts EVP Technology

"There are people who write in newspapers that all the technology is available to do that, and it's just a matter of implementing, and I don't believe that is the whole story," Yuri Sebregts, Shell's chief technology officer, told ET in an interview.

Electrifying personal mobility is "proven and fully possible" and it is "only a matter of turning over the world's vehicle stock", he said. But, decarbonising airplanes or ships or industrial energy is not easy, he added.

"Aviation is probably the most difficult to make fully carbon neutral. Electrifying a large intercontinental airplane with hundreds of people on board is not a technological option in the foreseeable future," he said. Industries consume roughly one-third of the energy in the world, and a lot of technological development is necessary to decarbonise steel, cement, plastics and fertilisers, he added. 

To have a real impact, technologies need to be commercially viable, said Sebregts, who was in India for Shell's 'Changemakers Of Tomorrow' initiative that brings together industry leaders and aspiring changemakers in the energy space. "Technology is not just about finding a catalyst that works in a lab. It needs to be investible, and it needs to be able to be scaled up so that it can provide large amounts of energy at a societal scale," he said. 

Shell spends about $1 billion a year on research and development and 41% of that was spent on decarbonisation technologies last year. The balance was spent on research related to oil and gas production, chemicals, and other areas. 

Shell's technology centre in Bengaluru has about 400 pure researchers and many more other experts who collaborate with colleagues across the globe on innovation projects. Developing third-generation biofuel technology and a new electrolyser system that promises to substantially cut green hydrogen costs are some of the projects the Bengaluru centre is involved in, Sebregts said. 

"Technological breakthroughs are necessary to get the cost of green hydrogen sufficiently down. That doesn't mean that scale-up isn't very important," he said. "But I think scaling up purely the technology that exists today is not going to be enough." 

Shell sees a big utility for direct air capture technology where carbon is captured straight from the air, unlike the regular technology where carbon dioxide is captured from an emission source such as a factory chimney. The concentration of CO2 is much less in normal air than in a chimney and therefore direct air capture is far costlier. 

But the advantage of direct capture is that "you can do it anywhere in the world," Sebregts said. It could be done very close to a reservoir to store the CO2, which can help cut the transport cost, he said. "Or you can do it where you have an abundance of renewable energy but nothing to do with it, say in the middle of a desert, where you have plenty of solar photovoltaic potential but no customers to use it and no grid infrastructure to get it to customers." 

As appeared in The Economic Times