Innovating energy solutions: Research and development highlights

ExxonMobil has remained a leader in energy technology throughout its 135-year history. With a commitment to fundamental science and innovation unmatched in our industry, we invest about $1 billion a year in research and development.

Article Oct. 10, 2018

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Innovating energy solutions: Research and development highlights

Research and development highlights

ExxonMobil invests about $1 billion a year in R&D across all our lines of business.

We continue to advance a range of technologies to help meet growing demand for energy while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with energy use. Our in-house research portfolio includes biofuels, carbon capture and storage, breakthrough energy-efficiency processes, natural gas technologies, advanced energy-saving materials and environmental life cycle assessments. We also work with leading research and technology companies, national labs and universities.

Our commitment to reducing emissions doesn’t stop in the research laboratory. Since 2000, ExxonMobil has spent approximately $8 billion to develop and deploy lower-emission energy solutions across our operations.

Algae and other advanced biofuels

ExxonMobil is actively researching biofuels made from algae. Algae naturally produce lipids that can be turned into a renewable, lower-emission fuel for transportation. The challenge is doing so economically and at scale, moving this technology from the petri dish to the fuel tank. ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Inc. continue to make progress in identifying and enhancing algae strains capable of high lipid production while maintaining desirable growth rates. And because the manufacturing processes for algae biofuels and today’s transportation fuels are similar, algae biofuels could be processed in existing refineries to supplement supplies of conventional gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

Our broad portfolio of advanced biofuels research also includes biofuels derived from cellulosic biomass. We have an agreement with Renewable Energy Group Inc. to study the production of biodiesel by fermenting cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste.

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Advanced, or second-generation, biofuels offer the possibility of achieving significant GHG reductions while also minimizing the impact on land, fresh water and food supplies compared with first-generation biofuels.

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ExxonMobil has invested $250 million on biofuels research in the last decade.

Can algae biofuels be the lower-emission fuel of tomorrow?

The biofuels used around the world today are largely derived from agricultural crops; sugar cane and corn are used to make ethanol, while biodiesel is made from vegetable oils like soy. Unlike these first-generation biofuels, algae could provide a renewable fuel source that does not compete with supplies of food or fresh water. Algae also can consume carbon dioxide (CO2) and have the potential to be produced on a large scale.

From production to combustion, here are seven important reasons why we think the answer could be yes. Find out why this renewable energy source, which can be grown at scale on a limited amount of land, is so promising.

Algae consumes CO2

In addition to producing algae, production sites could also act as carbon capture projects.

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Lower-emission fuel

On a life cycle basis, algae biofuels emit about half as much GHGs as petroleum-derived fuel.

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High yield

Each acre of algae yields more than 2,000 gallons (7,570 liters) of fuel. Compare that to 650 gallons (2,460 liters) per acre for palm oil and 50 gallons (190 liters) per acre for soybean oil.

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Year-round harvest

Unlike other feedstocks, such as corn, which is harvested only once a year, algae can be harvested repeatedly throughout the year.

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Food production

Algae can be cultivated on land unsuitable for other purposes with water that can’t be used for food production.

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Water purifier

Algae can be grown in wastewater and industrial effluent, and can actually purify polluted water while simultaneously producing energy-rich biofuels.

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Engine ready

Algae-derived diesel can be pumped into existing diesel automobiles without making major changes to car engines and infrastructure.

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Natural gas technology

Natural gas emits up to 60 percent fewer GHGs than coal for power generation, and is an ideal source of reliable power while also supplementing intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar or wind. It also is an abundant and versatile fuel, capable of powering utilities, homes and transportation. Recent advances in production technologies — many developed by ExxonMobil — have unlocked vast new supplies of gas in North America that previously were uneconomic to produce. ExxonMobil is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S.

Increased use of natural gas is a major reason why energy-related CO2 emissions from the U.S. power sector are down 15 percent since 2010, and at levels not seen since the early 1990s.

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ExxonMobil also is a leader in liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology that is bringing more of this cleaner-burning fuel to countries that need it.

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Natural gas can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 60% vs. coal when used for power generation.

Carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the process by which CO2 that otherwise would be emitted into the atmosphere is captured, compressed and injected underground for permanent storage. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recognized CCS as essential to meeting global emissions-reduction goals.

ExxonMobil remains a leader in CCS technology. Our capacity is among the industry’s largest, with a working interest in about one-fourth of the world’s CCS capacity. In 2016, we captured 6.3 million tonnes of CO2 for storage — equivalent to switching from coal to gas to meet the electricity needs of about 1 million U.S. homes.

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We are conducting proprietary, fundamental research to develop breakthrough CCS technologies, with an aim to reduce the complexity and cost of this important technology, while increasing its efficiency.

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​ExxonMobil captured 6.3 million metric tonnes of CO2 for storage in 2016.

Fuel cell technology

ExxonMobil is working with FuelCell Energy Inc. to explore an exciting new possibility: using carbonate fuel cells to more economically capture CO2 emissions from gas-fired power plants. Existing processes for capturing CO2 emissions consume energy, which increases costs, but carbonate fuel cells can produce electricity while they capture and concentrate CO2 streams. As a result, these fuel cells could significantly lower the cost of CCS, thereby bringing this breakthrough technology closer to widespread use.

Carbonate fuel cell technology could make CCS more affordable for power plants, which according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are the single largest source of GHG emissions.

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In 2016, FuelCell Energy and ExxonMobil signed a joint agreement that will allow scientists from both companies to work collaboratively and further develop this emissions-saving technology.

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About 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions comes from power generation.

How do fuel cells capture CO2?

Energy innovators ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy are collaborating on solving a big problem: how to capture CO2 more efficiently on a large scale. The technology we're working on uses fuel cells to separate CO2 from the exhaust stream of a power plant, making the CO2 easier to capture and pipe underground. While still in early development, this process could vastly reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. It also has the potential to dramatically reduce the costs of CCS, creating a pathway for its widespread use around the world.

Graphic showing how fuel cells can potentially work at power plants.
Could fuel cells be carbon-capture game changers?

Chemicals process breakthrough

ExxonMobil and Georgia Tech have developed a potentially revolutionary “reverse osmosis” technology that could significantly reduce GHGs associated with plastics manufacturing by using a molecular filter — rather than energy and heat — to perform a key step in the plastic-making process. If brought to an industrial scale, this breakthrough could reduce the industry’s global annual CO2 emissions by up to 45 million tonnes.

Demand for auto parts, housing materials, electronics and other products made from plastics and other petrochemicals continues to grow. Rising U.S. natural gas production has boosted supplies of ethane, a natural gas liquid raw material used to make plastics, enabling investment in U.S. chemical manufacturing and exports.

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Improving industrial energy efficiency and reducing emissions are part of ExxonMobil’s mission to meet the world’s needs while minimizing environmental impacts.

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A new ExxonMobil technology has the potential to reduce the plastic industry's global annual CO2 emissions by up to 45 million tonnes.

How does this breakthrough work?

Reverse osmosis has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of energy required in plastics manufacturing. The technology employs a molecular-level filter — the molecules needed to produce plastics pass through; the others are recycled back into the process. This separation of molecules is a critical step in the production of plastics, but one that currently requires a lot of thermal energy. Because reverse osmosis works at room temperature, it may one day replace existing separation technology with a much less energy-intensive option.

How does reverse osmosis work?
Graphic showing what could happen if we used reverse osmosis to help make certain plastics.

Advanced products

ExxonMobil develops and produces a range of advanced products that reduce GHG emissions and improve sustainability. These include resilient, lightweight automotive plastics that reduce overall vehicle weight and advanced tire technologies that help maintain optimal tire pressure — both of which make vehicles more fuel-efficient.

ExxonMobil also produces lightweight plastic packaging materials for everything from food to electronics. Lighter packaging means less transportation-related energy use and GHGs. Plastic packaging also helps extend the shelf life of fresh food by days or even weeks, improving safety and reducing food waste.

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Our high-performance lubricants — used not just in cars and trucks, but in more than 40,000 wind turbines worldwide — improve sustainability because they need replacing less frequently, reducing the volume of used oil that needs to be disposed of or recycled.

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A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can improve fuel economy by as much as 7%.

Life cycle assessments

A product’s environmental impact extends beyond its manufacturing and use; it also includes the acquisition of raw materials used to make the product, as well as its transport and disposal. In other words, a product’s estimated environmental impact should reflect its entire life cycle. ExxonMobil uses in-house experts and tools to conduct environmental life cycle assessments of emerging products and activities. In doing so, we are able to assess which technologies have the potential to deliver the game-changing results required to transition the energy system to lower-emission solutions.

ExxonMobil also collaborates with researchers at universities to advance the science of life cycle assessments. Additionally, in recent years, we have developed new approaches to quantifying environmental impacts associated with energy systems and published our findings in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.

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ExxonMobil continues to develop technologies that reduce carbon emissions. For example, we produce a range of advanced products — such as lightweight plastic packaging materials — that help manufacturers reduce energy use, emissions and waste.

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ExxonMobil employs 19,000 scientists and engineers, including more than 2,200 with PH.D.s.
ExxonMobil has committed $145 million to fund breakthrough research at MIT, Princeton, the University of Texas and Stanford.

University research collaborations

In addition to in-house research, ExxonMobil works with approximately 80 universities globally to explore next-generation energy technologies. We are a member of the MIT Energy Initiative, which supports advanced energy research. We have a collaboration with Princeton University in fields including solar and battery technology, and an agreement with the University of Texas to study carbon storage and other technologies.

ExxonMobil was a founding member of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, which seeks to develop game-changing breakthroughs that could lead to lower GHG emissions and a less carbon-intensive global energy system.

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Other collaborations range from understanding the impacts of black carbon and aerosols (University of California, Riverside) to the conversion of cellulosic sugars to fuels (University of Wisconsin).

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How is ExxonMobil fueling future energy discoveries?

Every day, ExxonMobil works with academic institutions around the world to research and develop new solutions to the world’s energy challenges. Our work includes everything from researching advances in materials science and carbon storage to understanding wind and solar energy. These collaborative relationships with colleges and universities fuel new discoveries and empower advanced energy research both in focused, short-term projects and multiyear programs.

University research collaborations

  • Beijing University of Chemical Technology
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry
  • City College of New York
  • College of William and Mary
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Cornell University
  • Delft University of Technology
  • Drexel University
  • Duke University
  • Dutch Polymer Institute
  • Florida State University
  • George Mason University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Imperial College
  • London Jacobs University
  • Bremen Jiangsu University
  • Joseph Fourier University
  • Louisiana State University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Michigan State University
  • Montana State University
  • Moscow State University
  • Nanyang Technological University
  • New York University Abu Dhabi
  • Newcastle University
  • North Carolina State University
  • Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Pohang University of Science and Technology
  • Princeton University
  • Purdue University
  • Qatar University
  • Rice University
  • Sichuan University
  • South China Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University at Galveston
  • Tsinghua University
  • University College Dublin
  • University of Alberta
  • University of Bristol
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of Calgary
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Riverside
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Florida
  • University of Hawaii
  • University of Houston
  • University of Illinois at Chicago
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • University of Miami
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Mons
  • University of North Texas
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of St. Thomas
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of Stockholm
  • University of Strasbourg
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Texas at El Paso
  • University of Tulsa
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin
  • University of Wyoming
  • Utrecht University
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Western Michigan University

Learn more

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