Developing and deploying scalable technology solutions

Report April 23, 2021

In this article

Developing and deploying scalable technology solutions
33 members of National Academies of Science and Engineering awarded

ExxonMobil’s sustained investment in R&D plays an important role in positioning the Company to develop next generation solutions and progress breakthroughs in areas such as carbon capture, biofuels and energy-efficient process technology. These solutions are critical to addressing the risks of climate change, and have the potential to be used across multiple sectors including the power, industrial and long-distance heavy-duty transportation sectors.

A variety of disciplines in science and engineering are needed to provide affordable and scalable energy. ExxonMobil employs 20,000 scientists and engineers, including more than 2,000 Ph.D.s, who have a wide range of capabilities. The Company's scientists have authored more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications and been awarded more than 10,000 patents over the past decade. ExxonMobil's patent portfolio is overseen by management to ensure an efficient and effective process is utilized to steward intellectual property.

ExxonMobil collaborates around the world with over 80 universities, five energy centers, and U.S. national laboratories to advance emerging energy technologies. In 2019, the Company formed a research partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory to accelerate development of areas such as carbon capture and biofuels technologies. In addition, ExxonMobil became the first energy company to join the IBM Quantum Network to explore the future potential for quantum computing to solve real-world energy problems faster or more efficiently than classical computing.

29 fellows of American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded

ExxonMobil has worked with companies such as FuelCell Energy to facilitate development and deployment of lower-cost carbon capture technologies, and with biological experts at Viridos (formerly Synthetic Genomics Inc.) to develop renewable fuels. The Company's strengths in science and engineering across the innovation pipeline, combined with extensive collaborations, provide a unique position to progress energy solutions from lab to scale.

The Company actively monitors emerging and impactful technologies, including solar, wind, nuclear and natural sinks, which are a natural means of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Much of this is undertaken through academic collaborations, which help inform and identify potential future opportunities.

ExxonMobil has demonstrated its commitment to R&D through various price cycles and delivered a number of energy innovations. While  deployment at scale takes time, the Company is confident it will be at the forefront of many future innovations to meet growing demand for energy with lower emissions.

Carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the process of capturing CO2 that would have otherwise been emitted to the atmosphere from industrial facilities and power plants, transporting the captured CO2 to a carefully selected storage site and then injecting the CO2 into deep geologic formations for safe, secure and permanent storage. Direct air capture uses advanced materials to capture CO2 from the atmosphere so that it can be stored in geological formations.

CCS is one of the most important low-carbon technologies required to achieve societal climate goals at the lowest cost. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated in its Fifth Assessment Report that the cost of achieving a 2°C outcome would increase by 138 percent if CCS were not included in the set of decarbonization solutions.1 CCS is generally recognized as one of the only technologies that can enable negative emissions, via bio-energy with CCS (BECCS) or direct air capture methods. In many low-carbon transition scenarios, negative emissions technologies are needed to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration. CCS is also one of the only technologies that could enable some industry sectors to decarbonize, including the refining, chemicals, concrete and steel sectors. This could be achieved by directly capturing CO2 emissions from these industrial sources or by using CCS in conjunction with hydrogen production to provide decarbonized fuel to these processes. Click here for more information on the role of CCS under the IPCC Lower 2°C scenarios.

ExxonMobil is a global leader in CCS and has more than 30 years of experience developing and deploying CCS technologies. The Company has equity share of about one-fifth of the world's CO2 capture capacity,2 and has projects operating in the United States, Australia and Qatar. ExxonMobil's annual carbon capture capacity is about 9 million tonnes, the equivalent emissions of approximately 2 million passenger vehicles per year. Since CCS began in the early 1970s, ExxonMobil has cumulatively captured more CO2 than any other company, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all the anthropogenic CO2 that has ever been captured.3 The Company is working to expand capacity and is evaluating multiple opportunities that have the potential to be commercially attractive through the convergence of supportive policy and technology.

In the Netherlands, ExxonMobil is working to advance both the Port of Rotterdam CO2 Transportation Hub and Offshore Storage (PORTHOS) project and the H-Vision study in the Rotterdam industrial area. With potential support from the European and Dutch governments, the initiatives could position ExxonMobil’s Rotterdam refinery as an attractive location for a hydrogen project with CCS and for pilot testing ExxonMobil’s carbonate fuel cell technology. The Company is also researching more cost- effective approaches for deployment of direct air capture at scale, see below.

Cumulative CO2 capture volume since 1970*

million tonnes

*Global CCS Institute. Data updated as of April 2020 and based on cumulative anthropogenic carbon dioxide capture volume. Anthropogenic CO2, for the purposes of this calculation, means CO2 that without carbon capture and storage would have been emitted to the atmosphere, including, but not limited to: reservoir CO2 from gas fields; CO2 emitted during production and CO2 emitted during combustion. It does not include natural CO2 produced solely for enhanced oil recovery.

ExxonMobil carbon capture capacity

(Equity, CO2-equivalent emissions million tonnes per year)
FuelCell Energy reports its 14.9MW fuel cell platform in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has provided clean and reliable power since 2013.

In Belgium, ExxonMobil is part of a consortium at the Port of Antwerp, Europe’s largest integrated energy and chemicals cluster , that is evaluating the feasibility of a cross-border collaboration to build CCS capacity and infrastructure. The Company is also progressing a potential expansion at its capture facility in LaBarge, Wyoming.

In addition, ExxonMobil supports multiple leading organizations that are working to accelerate CCS. Through its membership in the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), ExxonMobil is progressing the carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) Kick-Starter initiative to support large-scale commercial deployment of CCS via multiple low-carbon industrial hubs. ExxonMobil is also sharing its CCS expertise through participation in the Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP), which advises the European Union on the deployment of CCUS under the Commission’s Strategic Energy Technologies Plan. The ZEP was founded in 2005 and is a coalition of stakeholders united in the support for CCS as a key technology for addressing climate change.

As noted in last year’s Energy & Carbon Summary, ExxonMobil contributed to the National Petroleum Council’s report on at-scale deployment of CCS. The Council’s policy, regulatory and legal recommendations set out a road map for accelerating the deployment of CCS investment in the United States. Alongside the Energy Advance Center and other organizations advocating for CCS policy, ExxonMobil worked throughout 2020 to advance many of the Council’s recommendations, including seeking important clarifications to the Internal Revenue Code Section tax credit that is critical to promoting new CCS investment. 

While focused on deploying existing technology in the near term where supportive policy exists, ExxonMobil also recognizes the longer-term need for new technologies to lower the cost of deployment. In 2019, the Company extended its relationship with FuelCell Energy to further develop carbonate fuel cell system technology for the purpose of capturing CO2 from power plants and industrial facilities. The research by ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy indicates this technology has the potential to capture CO2 much more efficiently than conventional technologies, while at the same time producing hydrogen and electricity. To further progress this technology, ExxonMobil is working to prove this technology at scale through a demonstration unit at its Rotterdam refinery mentioned above.

The Company is also working with TDA Research in Golden, Colorado, to co-develop a new carbon capture adsorption process. The technology has the potential to offer several advantages over conventional approaches by reducing energy-intensive process steps. The technology has been tested at the National Carbon Capture Center (U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored research facility), and achieved up to 90 percent CO2 capture from flue gas.4 Together with the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), ExxonMobil published joint research in the peer-reviewed journal Science on the discovery of another new technology that could potentially capture more than 90 percent of CO2 and could prove up to six times more effective than conventional approaches.5

In addition, the Company is exploring the potential to capture CO2 directly from the air. When combined with geologic storage of CO2, direct air capture could provide a path to negative emissions. In 2020, ExxonMobil extended a joint development agreement with Global Thermostat to further explore the process fundamentals and potential pathways to large-scale deployment of direct air capture technology. While more research and development is still required, direct air capture could have a significant role to play in global decarbonization efforts. 

Global Thermostat direct air capture pilot unit.

Low-carbon hydrogen

Hydrogen (H2), as a low-carbon energy carrier, has received a great deal of attention recently. ExxonMobil expects future policies to incentivize low-carbon H2 for a variety of clean energy applications. Low-carbon H2 can be produced from low-carbon electricity via electrolysis of water, natural gas reforming coupled with CCS, or by other processes. Hydrogen can be useful in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as fuel for heavy-duty trucks and to produce high temperature industrial heat for steel, refining and chemical industries.6 Low-carbon H2 from natural gas with CCS has cost and scale advantages compared to H2 from electrolysis in the near and medium term.7,8 As a world leader in both natural gas production and CCS, ExxonMobil is well positioned to play an important role in this potential area of the energy transition. 

Process development to first deployment at Viridos CAAF (California Advanced Algai Facility), in Calipatria, California.

Advanced biofuels

Heavy-duty transportation (trucking, aviation and marine) requires fuels with a high energy density that liquid hydrocarbons provide. The need for an energy-dense fuel could make certain alternatives, such as battery power, poorly suited for this sector. Biofuels, such as those derived from algae, have the potential to be a scalable solution and deliver the required energy density in a liquid form that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent compared to today's heavy-duty transportation fuels.9 ExxonMobil continues to progress research to transform algae and cellulosic biomass into liquid fuels (biofuels) for the transportation sector. 

Together with Viridos, ExxonMobil has improved strains of algae that use CO2 and sunlight to produce energy-rich bio-oil, which can then potentially be processed at existing refineries, similar to crude oil, into renewable fuels. A key focus is developing novel genetic tools to overcome inherent inefficiencies in photosynthesis and improve bio-oil production. Needed biology modifications to the algae continue to be progressed, and the project team has demonstrated increased production in outdoor algae ponds.

Through key collaborations, ExxonMobil has also made significant progress that has more than doubled the yield of biodiesel from a variety of cellulosic sugars. Work with the national labs and academic institutions is helping to address the most challenging issues of scale for cellulosic biofuels and the Company continues to evaluate a wide range of options in this space.

In 2020, ExxonMobil signed an agreement with Global Clean Energy Holdings to purchase 2.5 million barrels of renewable diesel per year for five years, starting in 2022. The renewable diesel will be sourced from a refinery acquired by Global Clean Energy that is being repurposed to produce renewable diesel. In addition, the Company has completed a sea trial of ExxonMobil's first bio-based marine fuel, which can provide up to approximately 40 percent CO2 emissions reduction compared to conventional marine fuels.

Energy-efficient manufacturing

Taking the emissions out of manufacturing

The manufacturing sector of the economy – which produces fuel, plastic, steel, cement, textiles and other building blocks of modern life – accounts for about one-third of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions. 

Demand for industrial products is expected to grow as economies expand and standards of living rise in the developing world. To meet this demand, the world will need manufacturing solutions that are more energy- and greenhouse gas-efficient than those currently available. Since 2000, ExxonMobil has reduced and avoided nearly 350 million tonnes of its emissions through its energy efficiency and cogeneration projects and continues to target research in equipment design, advanced separations, catalysis and process configurations as part of broader efforts to develop energy-efficient manufacturing. 

Concept of divided wall columns is applied to provide energy and capital savings by combining a series of distillation towers into one, as demonstrated at the Fawley Refinery xylene tower in the U.K.
Depiction of the surface of a molecular membrane.  Membranes could enable the transition from high-energy to low-energy processes.

Energy-efficient manufacturing efforts

Rethinking equipment design: New equipment design may provide a step-change reduction in energy use even in traditional separation processes like distillation. For instance, use of divided wall columns – a concept discovered and developed by ExxonMobil – can combine a series of distillation towers into one, thereby providing significant energy and capital cost savings. Energy savings on the order of 50 percent were demonstrated at ExxonMobil’s Fawley Refinery in the U.K.10

Reimagining separations: ExxonMobil scientists and researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and Imperial College London are working together on membrane technologies that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions and lower the energy required in refining thermal (distillation) processes. Research results published in the peer- reviewed journal Science11 demonstrate the potential for non-thermal fractionation of light crude oil through a combination of class- and size-based “sorting” of molecules. Initial prototypes have shown that with gasoline and jet fuel they are twice as effective as the most selective commercial membranes in use today.

Life cycle analysis

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is the preferred scientific method to estimate the environmental impact of energy processes and products. It is important to include all emissions across the life cycle of each option when comparing different energy technologies. Every step that emits any type of greenhouse gas must be included to properly estimate the total emissions footprint. This includes emissions associated with production of the resource, conversion and transportation steps, and lastly, consumption of the fuel by the end user (e.g., in a vehicle or in a power plant). 

ExxonMobil  has been working with the MIT Energy Initiative to develop a new LCA tool that covers pathways of multiple technologies representing the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. This tool, called the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME12), is based on well-referenced peer-reviewed sources in the public domain and can perform full life cycle analyses for more than 1,000 technology pathways, from primary energy sources to final products or services including those from the power, transportation, industrial and residential sectors. 

To have meaningful impact, greenhouse gas mitigation technologies must also be cost-effective. The use of techno-economic analysis (TEA) helps determine the most impactful and cost-effective ways to meet global energy needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. TEA also helps to transparently inform policy development.  

TEA is currently being added to the SESAME model. Once completed, SESAME will compare both the emissions and costs of energy technologies across all sectors in a system-wide setting. It will be publicly available as a transparent and open-source web tool designed for both experts and general users.

Pictorial example of one pathway included in the SESAME tool: natural gas production and power generation to the end use in an electric vehicle.

1 Edenhofer, O. et al (2014) Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

2 Global CCS capacity: Global CCS Institute, Global Status of CCS 2020, page 19. ExxonMobil CCS capacity: ExxonMobil estimates.

3 Global CCS Institute. Data updated as of April 2020 and based on cumulative anthropogenic carbon dioxide capture volume. Anthropogenic CO2, for the purposes of this calculation, means CO2 that without carbon capture and storage would have been emitted to the atmosphere, including, but not limited to: reservoir CO2 from gas fields; CO2 emitted during production and CO2 emitted during combustion. It does not include natural CO2 produced solely for enhanced oil recovery.

4 TDA Research, Pilot unit testing at NCCC of sorbent based CO2 capture project, October 2020.

5 E. Kim, R. Siegelman, H. Jiang, A. Forse, J-H. Lee, J. Martell, P. Milner, J. Falkowski, J. Neaton, J. Reimer, S. Weston, J. Long, Cooperative carbon capture and steam regeneration with tetraamine-appended metal-organic frameworks, Science 369 (6502) (2020) 392-396.

6 IEA, World Energy Outlook 2020, p. 122.

7 Goldman Sachs, Carbonomics: The Rise of Clean Hydrogen, July 2020. 

8 IEA, The Future of Hydrogen - Seizing today’s opportunities, June 2019.

9 ExxonMobil estimates.

10 B. Slade, B. Stober, D. Simpson, Dividing wall column revamp optimises mixed xylenes production, IChemE, Symposium Series No. 152, (2006).

11 K. Thompson, R. Mathias, D. Kim, J. Kim, N. Rangnekar, J. Johnson, S. Hoy, I. Bechis, A. Tarzia, K. Jelfs, B. McCool, A. Livingston, R. Lively, M. Finn, N-Aryl-linked spirocyclic polymers for membrane separations of complex hydrocarbon mixtures, Science 369 (6501) (2020) 310-315.

12 E. Gencer, S. Torkamani, I. Miller, T. Wu, F. O’Sullivan, Sustainable energy system analysis modeling environment: analyzing life cycle emissions of the energy transition, Applied Energy 277 (2020) 115550.

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