We have begun collaborations with energy centers at Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas at Austin as part of our commitment to finding meaningful and scalable solutions to meet global energy demand.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In October 2014, ExxonMobil became a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative, a unique collaboration aimed at working together to advance and explore the future of energy focused on new energy sources and more efficient use of conventional energy resources. Since launching the collaboration with MIT, the joint research program has made inroads into several areas, including bio-inspired catalysts for the petrochemical industry and computational modeling to better understand the properties of iron and iron-based alloys used in pipelines. The program has also enabled ExxonMobil to expand research efforts to emerging areas like photovoltaic and nuclear power, as well as enhance our understanding of energy options and the interactions between them.
ExxonMobil has also joined the MIT Energy Initiative’s Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) Center, one of eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers—first called for in MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change in October 2015. It was established to advance research on specific, key technologies to address climate change such as electric power systems, energy bioscience, energy storage, materials for energy and extreme environments, advanced nuclear energy systems, nuclear fusion and solar energy, in addition to CCUS.
In Sept. 2016, ExxonMobil and Princeton University announced the selection of five research projects associated with their partnership focused on energy technologies. The projects will center on solar and battery technologies, plasma physics, Arctic sea-ice modeling, and the impact of carbon dioxide absorption on the world’s oceans. This announcement followed ExxonMobil’s June 2015 commitment to contribute $5 million over five years to Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership, a program administered by Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment that fosters research in sustainable energy and environmental solutions. E-ffiliates promotes collaboration between industry and academia to search for energy and environmental breakthroughs. ExxonMobil scientists collaborated with Princeton professors to identify areas with the most scientific potential, particularly ones that build on the university’s existing strengths and interests in emerging energy.
The University of Texas at Austin
In July 2016, ExxonMobil announced a $15 million investment as a leading member of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute to pursue technologies to help meet growing energy demand while reducing environmental impacts and the risk of climate change. The joint research initiative will study transformational energy innovations including integrating renewable energy sources into the current supply mix and advancing traditional energy sources in ways that improve efficiency and reduce impacts on water, air and climate. Research projects are expected to cover a range of emerging technologies, and will take advantage of the university’s capabilities in renewable energy, battery technologies and power grid modeling. Core strengths in advanced computing, environmental management and additive manufacturing may be applied to improve traditional energy sources.
Georgia Institute of Technology
Scientists from ExxonMobil and the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) have developed a potentially revolutionary new technology that could significantly reduce the amount of energy and emissions associated with manufacturing plastics. Results of the research were published in the Aug. 19, 2016, edition of the professional journal Science.
The new process uses a form of reverse osmosis to separate similarly sized organic molecules. It effectively relies on a molecular-level filter that separates chemical building blocks for plastics from complex hydrocarbons at low temperatures and pressures. Working with Dr. Ryan Lively, assistant professor in GT’s School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, and a GT post-doctoral researcher, the team successfully demonstrated that chemical compounds known as aromatics can be separated by pressing them through a synthetic membrane they developed that acts as a high-tech sieve.
The new process may enable chemical producers to separate aromatics without heating the chemical mixture, greatly reducing the amount of energy consumed and emissions generated during the current commercial manufacturing process. ExxonMobil believes the new membrane has potential for commercialization and integration into industrial chemical separation processes since it is made from common materials, known as polymer building blocks. The technology still faces a number of challenges before it can be considered for commercialization and use at an industrial scale. The membranes used in the process will need to be tested under more challenging conditions, as industrial mixtures normally contain multiple organic compounds and may include materials that can foul membrane systems. The researchers must also learn to make the material consistently and demonstrate that it can withstand long-term industrial use.
This breakthrough could reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 45 million tons, which is equivalent to the annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions of about five million U.S. homes. It could also reduce global energy costs used to make plastics by up to $2 billion a year. As our research into this specific chemical process advances, we hope to learn more about how this technology could be used in other applications to achieve the same type of efficiency and emissions-reductions results, and potentially reduce our manufacturing footprint even further.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
The University of Wisconsin-Madison and ExxonMobil continue to partner together to research the fundamental chemistry of converting biomass into transportation fuels. The research is part of a broad effort to identify scalable and commercially viable solutions to help meet increasing global energy demand with a renewable resource.
UW-Madison has long been known for its expertise in biomass conversion. The project leverages the university’s expertise with ExxonMobil’s resources and strong technological capabilities. George Huber, the Harvey D. Spangler professor of chemical and biological engineering at UW-Madison, is working closely with ExxonMobil’s scientists to build a stronger understanding of the basic chemical transformations that occur during biomass conversion into diesel and jet fuels.
Over the past two years, research has focused on a multi-step approach for converting cellulosic biomass to transportation fuels. A new approach with the potential to reduce the number of processing steps will be explored in this collaboration. This approach using solvents could potentially dissolve the entire biomass, which might make it possible to convert the whole biomass into fuel-sized molecules in a single reactor.
Another potential process that will be studied in this collaboration involves the catalytic transformation of bio-derived ethanol into bio-derived diesel and jet fuel. Ethanol is currently produced from a range of sources and is widely used as an additive to gasoline. This technology could potentially allow larger diesel and jet fuel molecules to be produced from renewable sources. Our research continues to focus on non-food sources like corn stover and other cellulosic feedstocks.
And many more
ExxonMobil is also a founding member of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, which seeks to develop fundamental, game-changing scientific breakthroughs that could lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions and a less carbon-intensive global energy system. Other university collaborations cover a wide range of scientific topics, from understanding the impacts of black carbon and aerosols at the University of California, Riverside to the fundamentals of biomass pyrolysis used to make biofuels at Iowa State University.
ExxonMobil is funding a broad portfolio of biofuels research programs including our ongoing efforts on algae as well as programs on converting alternative, non-food based biomass feedstocks, such as cellulosic biomass, to advanced biofuels. We are working with some of these leading scientists and engineers at universities, government laboratories and companies and have designed our research portfolio to progress the science that we feel will be needed to deliver advanced biofuels with environmental benefits.