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A new approach to fundamental research

ExxonMobil collaborates with university energy centers for new solutions to energy challenges.

It’s been 27 years since David Dankworth walked the halls of Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1991. Today, the ExxonMobil distinguished scientific adviser is back on campus, collaborating once again with the faculty and staff.

Dankworth is coordinating a portfolio of academic research projects with Princeton faculty and graduate students as part of collaborative relationships with energy centers at four of the nation’s top universities.

“It helps to have a connection to Princeton as I make appointments and go talk to faculty members involved in various research programs,” Dankworth says. “I am able to bridge across corporate and academic culture, having experience in both.”

Besides Princeton, ExxonMobil is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and Stanford University to pursue technologies that can help meet the dual challenge of growing energy demand while also reducing emissions.

Photo — Mike Matturro, director, Hydrocarbon and Emerging Energy Sciences Laboratory at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering (EMRE)

“We want to have a wider view of emerging energy research and be fully engaged in accessing the best science and technology relevant for our corporation,” says Mike Matturro, director, Hydrocarbon and Emerging Energy Sciences Laboratory at ExxonMobil.

“Understanding the evolving world of energy helps ExxonMobil improve efficiency, mitigate emissions and gain a clear vision of the strongest, best science that supports policy decisions globally,” he says. “We also want to be aware of developments in alternative energy and new frontiers in science.”

A new approach

While ExxonMobil has been engaged for years in research with more than 80 universities across the globe, these new relationships go beyond traditional support.

“We have long-established relationships with universities, conducting proprietary research and participating in industry consortia,” explains Michele Thomas, ExxonMobil’s scientific portfolio adviser for the University of Texas. “That work will continue, but this is different. The findings will be published, and ExxonMobil researchers work directly with the faculty and their graduate and postdoctoral students on those projects. Faculty members are excited about both the long-range focus of the work and the opportunity to collaborate with our in-house scientists.”

The new strategy evolved from a long-standing relationship with Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), which ExxonMobil joined as a founding member in 2002, committing $100 million for research.

In 2012, ExxonMobil began looking at a different strategy to increase access to emerging research. “There was great diversification in the world of emerging energy research, far beyond what we could manage ourselves,” Matturro notes. “Our work with university energy centers is about creating new science capabilities for the company and a new awareness of where emerging energy technologies will go.”

Crossroads for discovery

After reviewing the capabilities of university energy centers around the world, four emerged as major crossroads for energy research, providing access to eminent scientists who could improve the company’s line of sight for leading-edge science and technology.

In 2014, ExxonMobil became a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative, investing $25 million which supports students, postdoctoral fellows and 10 graduate energy fellowship appointments each year.

In 2015, the company joined the Princeton E-filliates Partnership, which is administered by Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. The program fosters collaboration between the university and industry in the pursuit of energy and environmental innovation. ExxonMobil committed $5 million, the largest financial commitment the program has received.

And in August 2016, ExxonMobil announced its investment of $15 million in the UT Energy Institute.

“All of these projects support future work and build capabilities and knowledge in areas that are adjacent to our core science and business,” notes Hans Thomann, who serves as scientific portfolio adviser for ExxonMobil’s projects at MIT. Currently, ExxonMobil is working with MIT researchers on a variety of projects, including the areas of carbon capture and sequestration, photovoltaic devices, fundamentals of steel corrosion, data analytics and machine learning, to name a few.

“At MIT, we find that working closely with the industry helps us identify problems with the greatest opportunity for impact at scale,” says MIT Energy Initiative Director Robert Armstrong. “In addition, this work facilitates the ultimate successful commercialization of any new technologies we develop. We are collaborating with ExxonMobil and a consortium of other companies engaged in our Low-Carbon Energy Centers to advance technologies that will power our future while addressing the global challenges of climate change and energy access.”

“By working across universities, where innovation is inherently occurring at a very rapid pace involving multiple disciplines, we can see how research in one field can have an impact on another,” Thomann notes.

Photo — Yueh-Lin “Lynn” Loo, director of the Andlinger Center at Princeton University

Princeton’s Andlinger Center, 35 miles from the ExxonMobil Research and Engineering (EMRE) research center in Clinton, New Jersey, is looking at alternative energies for the future. Current research projects include the development of organic photovoltaic materials, extending battery lifetime and cycle efficiency, using low-temperature plasmas to convert methane into other products and the impact of carbon dioxide on oceans.

“We need close collaborations between academics and industrial practitioners in order to catalyze emerging energy technologies and implement them for the wider world,” says Yueh-Lin “Lynn” Loo, director of the Andlinger Center. “At the center, ExxonMobil can gain insight to leading-edge research. Faculty, research scholars and students can explore how ideas make the leap from lab to market.”

Research at the UT Energy Institute will capitalize on the university’s expertise in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and strengths in geoscience and petroleum engineering. ExxonMobil is an industry leader in CCS, with a working interest in about one-fourth of the world’s capacity.

“By partnering with UT, the company can tap into trends and cutting-edge research across academic disciplines,” says Tom Edgar, director of UT’s Energy Institute. “The goal is to get people together and start learning from each other, identifying opportunities across the energy spectrum, across disciplines, and let cross-fertilization start to generate new and better ideas for the future.”

The company will develop a similar collaborative relationship with Stanford’s GCEP, whose program has significantly impacted the research world over the past decade.

“Our initial investment at Stanford led to increasing the size of the research community in energy,” says Nazeer Bhore, ExxonMobil manager, lead generation and downstream breakthrough research. “In the past 10 years, the program has impacted more than 900 graduate and postdoctoral students. They authored more than 850 papers in leading journals and received more than 35,000 citations of GCEP research. This research enabled the creation of many new startups. The impact is phenomenal,” Bhore notes.

Photo — Nazeer Bhore, manager, lead generation and downstream breakthrough research at the Clinton EMRE facility

Advantage of adjacency

ExxonMobil hopes that its energy center engagements will have a similar impact to expand fundamental research applicable to the industry.

“For example, at MIT, we’re working with the artificial intelligence researchers who planned the Mars Rover mission,” Thomann says. “We’re developing self-learning, submersible robots that can monitor the depths of the oceans: mapping and analyzing them, and gauging their health. The MIT team is also looking at technology developed for the far reaches of our solar system. Our collaboration allows us to apply technological advances in adjacent areas.”

“We also joined the MIT Energy Initiative’s Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Center, which is one of eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers,” he adds. “We want to broaden the portfolio of technical options to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

By working through universities’ energy centers, ExxonMobil can broaden the scope of research opportunities and provide greater access to faculty members. “In the past, we might have developed an individual relationship with one institute at the university,” Matturro notes. “Now, through each university’s energy center, we have a portal for working across all institutions on campus.”

Photo — David Dankworth, distinguished scientific adviser, EMRE

At Princeton, Dankworth plans to take advantage of the university’s strong liberal arts program, working with public affairs, economics, psychology and social science experts in diverse fields to understand how people make decisions and how societies change, which can impact the deployment speed of energy solutions.

To launch its programs at universities, ExxonMobil conducts one- to two-day workshops with the faculty and leadership of the energy centers. “Our scientists get a chance to listen to faculty members and their areas of research to see where their capabilities and our interests overlap,” Matturro says.

“Having an umbrella agreement in place fosters collaboration between ExxonMobil and our faculty very quickly, allowing researchers to focus on what they do best, which is the science and discovery,” Princeton’s Loo notes.

The collaborative relationship enables student researchers to work with scientists in the field to solve real problems.

Long-term, experienced researchers and engineers like Dankworth spend at least 20 percent of their time facilitating and working with faculty and student researchers on campus. ExxonMobil scientists are joint program leaders, and collaborate closely with faculty leads at the universities.

“We are not just providing funds as a sponsor, but are active participants in the research,” Matturro notes.

For Dankworth, it’s exciting to make connections between faculty members and ExxonMobil researchers. “Because of our research center’s close proximity to campus, there are two or three ExxonMobil researchers collaborating with students and faculty on campus every week. These types of partnerships help ExxonMobil broaden its bandwidth and connect with cutting-edge research in areas such as electronics, geophysical dynamics and plasmas – capabilities that we don’t have in-house. The partnerships are instrumental as we look to provide energy for the future.”