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A wide aperture into the future

Top researchers focus on emerging energy technologies.

Photo — T.J. Wojnar Jr., vice president, Corporate Strategic Planning

When wildcatter Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in 1859, striking oil some 69 feet below ground in Titusville, Pennsylvania, who could have imagined today’s drilling platforms tapping oil 30,000 feet below the surface of the ocean?

But looking into the future is key to meeting the world’s energy needs, which are expected to increase 25 percent by 2040. An ExxonMobil team of senior-level scientists, engineers, and research and development executives has dedicated themselves to imagining our energy future, evaluating technology research opportunities that range from improving today’s energy efficiency to advancing the alternative energy sources of tomorrow.

“Technology is the lifeblood of this industry,” says T.J. Wojnar Jr., vice president Corporate Strategic Planning. “There have been significant breakthroughs over the entire evolution of energy, and ExxonMobil has been at the forefront of many of those. By 2040, the world will have more than 2 billion additional people who need access to energy, and the developing nations of today will want an efficient, effective and reliable energy supply.”

Predicting the future

ExxonMobil looks at the energy landscape up to 2040 and beyond to understand the role resources and products will play, and how the entire energy landscape could evolve.

Wojnar says a key challenge to predicting the future is forecasting future technologies. “Technology developments are one of the key drivers of improvements in our standards of living and economic progress,” he says. “So as we look to the future, we want to keep a sharp eye on technology developments that we think will improve lives and help provide new types of energy and improved ways of delivering energy.”

A unique in-house team of more than 150 Ph.D.s in the Corporate Strategic Research organization tracks technology trends and alternate energy breakthroughs to assist Wojnar’s planning group in its development of ExxonMobil’s Outlook for Energy. The annual study looks into the future at the evolving landscape.

The most recent Outlook forecasts that the world’s economy will double by the year 2040. There will be 1.8 billion cars, light trucks and SUVs in the world, up from 1 billion now.

“Our company makes long-term, multibillion dollar investment decisions and needs to have as clear an understanding as possible of what the future may hold,” Wojnar says. “The close link between our strategic planning and our research program is vital to the future success of the corporation.”

A rich portfolio

Photo — Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development

Based on this forward thinking, researchers at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) are exploring the science behind next-generation fuels and vehicles, and developing new technologies to support the energy needs of the future.

EMRE’s Emerging Technologies research organization has a rich portfolio of projects in five areas of endeavor: increasing energy supply, improving efficiency, promoting good science for sound policy, mitigating emissions and expanding energy access.

“We want to have our aperture as wide open as possible to understand the fundamentals behind various energy options being pursued today in academia, at national labs and within the industry,” says Vijay Swarup, EMRE’s vice president of research and development. “This allows us to understand which technologies are fundamentally different and technically viable to progress over a period of decades.”

What makes an energy option attractive? “It should be scalable, reliable, affordable and sustainable,” he says.

Currently, in the mitigating emissions area, ExxonMobil has multiple research programs and partnerships involving carbon capture and sequestration, with researchers studying the capture of carbon dioxide emissions. One program involves researching and testing whether carbonate fuel-cell carbon-capture technology is feasible on a commercial scale.

ExxonMobil researchers are also looking at ways to increase supply by converting natural gas to higher-value products and creating alternative fuels such as biofuels. “We’re studying the fundamental ways in which algae absorb light, and through normal biological processes, generate the types of oil we need to convert into transportation fuel,” Swarup says.

He adds that one of the greatest sources for energy tomorrow is being more efficient with what the world has today. “Our researchers are looking at improved efficiency of internal combustion engines and understanding how we can make advanced polymers that are lighter weight.

“In the expanding energy access area, we’re studying energy options for developing nations, including power-generation technologies and power distribution.

“As part of our good science and sound policy studies, we conduct what’s called wells-to-wheels analysis to determine the environmental impacts of various energy types and technologies over a complete life cycle.”

A long-term focus

Understanding the energy landscape decades from now is important because of the nature of energy development.

”The infrastructure needed to move an energy source and the types of capital projects required to extract or convert resources all take significant amounts of time and funding to implement on a commercial scale,” Swarup says. “Therefore, we must have a big-picture focus and future view for determining which technologies to place our research behind, with a line of sight to develop them ultimately into commercial projects or products.”

Photo — ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company researchers working in The Lab building, Houston campus

Emerging technologies can influence the energy landscape. “One of the great uncertainties is the rate and pace of technology evolution and development. We couldn’t have imagined 50 years ago the types of deepwater and directional drilling techniques that are available today,” Swarup says.

“As the energy landscape continues to evolve, our job is to understand the fundamental science behind the various energy options so that we can continue to advance our contribution to energy and energy solutions,” he adds.

The entire corporation plays a role in technology evolution, from the upstream in finding and developing new opportunities for energy access, to the downstream in converting energy resources to fuels, lubricants and chemical products that are more efficient, affordable and better for the environment.

“This is an exciting time to be in technology,” Wojnar notes. “The integrated alignment across the ExxonMobil value chain is in great shape, and we look forward to what we will deliver.”

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