By Dr Vijay Swarup, vice president of research & development, ExxonMobil
As researchers, we can never put a deadline on innovation. But we are committed to accelerating it, working in parallel with research partners on efforts big and small. That’s because the problem we’re dedicated to solving – reducing carbon emissions through technological innovation – requires a diverse set of approaches from multiple disciplines. I’ve said before our philosophy is “and, not or,” when it comes to potential solutions. We need to pull in ideas from everywhere, including unconventional sources, to fuel the kind of wide-scale innovation that we need, from molecular to global scales.
I made a similar point at CERAWeek 2021, where I participated in a panel called “Will Energy Innovation Deliver?” moderated by IHS Markit’s Carlos Pascual. I was joined by Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and Darryl Willis, corporate vice president for the energy industry at Microsoft. With a nod to my colleague from Microsoft, I used an analogy from computing to describe the work that needs to be done to make sure the answer is yes: namely that the way we approach innovation shouldn’t be a sequential process, but a parallel one. This means many research partners instead of going it alone, all working together and at the same time on different projects toward the same overall goal. As I said on the panel, energy is tough. It’s one of the few industries that requires every form of technical capability, from digital to chemistry to math to physics and more.
So how is our work going with our many research partners representing many different disciplines?
I’d like to discuss two major types of “parallel process” innovation taking place.
We’ve been working on carbon capture and storage (CCS) for 30 years, and what our experience tells us is that we need to continue to do research to find better ways to do it, through both direct air and industrial emissions CO2 capture. In recent years, we’ve partnered with several outstanding collaborators in carbon capture, including the Department of Energy’s National Labs, Global Thermostat, FuelCell Energy and several others from the corporate and academic worlds.
One of the key potentials of CCS lies in how we can couple this technology with processes powered by natural gas, a conventional fuel that ExxonMobil has expertise in producing at scale. In fact, in the Net Zero America Project conducted by Princeton University, natural gas power generation paired with CCS forms a key component in the pathway to achieving net zero by 2050. Compared to coal, burning natural gas to generate power intrinsically reduces carbon emissions, but if we add CCS into the mix, we can theoretically eliminate CO2 emissions from natural gas-fired power generation, which would be a tremendous breakthrough. Firm generation capacity from sources like natural gas coupled with CCS and nuclear power is also required for grid reliability to mitigate the intermittent nature of renewables like solar and wind.
Another exciting area of innovation is in hydrogen production. At its core, hydrogen is an energy carrier. As a fuel, it burns with zero emissions. Scaled up, hydrogen has utility in industrial applications, transportation and heating. As such, we are advancing a wide range of research to bolster this technology.
Take “blue hydrogen,” for example. By coupling natural gas reforming with CCS, we can produce this very, very low-emission hydrogen source that can then power industrial processes like cement manufacturing. Coupled with advances in the digital world, such as breakthroughs in modeling and data analytics pioneered by companies like Microsoft, we can design more robust architecture for these projects.
And all of this describes parts of our portfolio dedicated to producing a solution set that is broad enough for communities everywhere, so that they can adopt the spectrum of tools most tailored to their circumstances. Indeed, our steps toward meeting the aspirations of society are ongoing, and from designing novel molecules to planning new infrastructure, together we will crack the puzzle at every scale to usher in a lower-carbon energy future.