In this new series, Tech for Good gets a 10-minute glimpse into new technologies. This month we sit down with Nikhil Shah, CEO and Co-Founder of S-Cube, to find out more about carbon-capture technologies and how to hear inside the Earth

TFG: Nik, tell us why learning about the Earth’s crust is so important?

Nik: Sure. Wells penetrating the Earth can cost tens of millions of dollars to drill, so that’s why we definitely need to probe the Earth several kilometres down before drilling and we need to be able to target sufficiently large accumulations within the Earth’s crust to justify the cost. And, very importantly, we need to be able to reduce the risk of a dry hole.

TFG: What are the benefits of carbon-capture?

Nik: Currently, only about 100 million out of 40 billion tonnes of emissions arising from human activity are captured and stored underground, so there’s clearly a major opportunity for controlling climate change by increasing that amount. Hence the number of projects right now being lined up by governments and big companies looking to offset their emissions. And S-Cube has a role to play specifically in making carbon capture storage much more cost-effective than it currently is.

TFG: What does S-Cube do and why is it more advanced than what was out there before?

Nik: Our algorithm, XWI, is a form of extreme machine learning. It learns to predict recorded sound waves from the seismic survey and focuses on the velocity. This is the parameter that allows you to see inside the Earth and make predictions, based on X, Y, Z location. With XWI you can increase the resolution of this parameter at target depths and use that to identify left-behind and hidden resources and increase success in strike rates above the industry norm of only 20 to 30%. But, more importantly, XWI is also being used to identify secure and high-capacity storage sites for future CO2 injections, especially with impermeable rocks holding the CO2 in place and preventing escape.

TFG: How was this technology born?

Nik: S-Cube is a spinout from academia and it’s backed by venture capital. What’s unique about it is that it’s built on theoretical fundamental breakthroughs in the space of unravelling multiple interfering soundwaves into a clear intelligible signal. It’s essentially solving what’s called a ‘cocktail party problem’ but inside the Earth. Our work can be described as creating the brain for the Earth’s audio.

TFG: Tell me about the people you worked with and that have made this happen.

Nik: In my days at Cambridge and Imperial, I absorbed Maths from the best minds, from Stephen Hawking to Professor Mike Warner. I met our co-founders through the Earth Science doctoral programme at Imperial. I’d say we bring to the table our individual skillsets and experience but, at the same time, we have a shared vision.

TFG: How vital is your collaboration with AWS?

Nik: The main thing it allows us to do is to actually create those industry-firsts. The most recent one has been the Million Core workload which was run utilising our Full Waveform Inversion software by Woodside, the largest natural gas producer in Australia with a carbon business focussed on generating and acquiring CO2 offsets. We take advantage of their unprecedented scale and combine it with the unprecedented resolution that XWI gives to lead the industry.

TFG: And it’s that kind of power that you get from the cloud hyperscalers that can revolutionise the work that you do?

Nik: That’s right. We’re always looking at the next frontier and I’d say for XWI that is seeing what is happening inside the Earth but in real-time. Then we’ll be able to measure concentrations and extraction zones and injection zones. For that, we are also partnering with the leaders in downhole sensing. We are running on custom hardware, we are streaming from the sensor. And the intention and the vision is to be able to deploy XWI at every industrial plant for CO2 storage.

TFG: How are you planning to really market this technology?

Nik: At this stage, we’re still rolling it out. All of our growth has been thanks to revenue we’ve generated ourselves. We’re working with operators in the most complex geological settings. Essentially, they’re looking at left-behind reserves: for example, mass below-salt structures and we’re developing the algorithm so it’s ready for the future, which is CO2 storage.

TFG: You’re at the very beginning of your own personal journey. How excited are you for the future?

Nik: I’d say that getting to this point is very satisfying. We have been able to evolve through customers needing our solution, and now we can add that vision for the future in terms of the problem we’re trying to solve and the impact that’s going to have on the Earth, the environment and humanity in general.