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Driving innovation – developing new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

We believe that global energy-related carbon emissions will peak and start to decrease starting around 2030 as energy efficiency spreads and as various carbon-reduction policies are enacted around the world.

ExxonMobil’s annual Outlook for Energy anticipates global energy-related carbon emissions will only be about 10 per cent higher in 2040 than they were in 2014, despite the fact that the population will have risen by about 25 per cent and global GDP will have more than doubled.

Energy-based greenhouse gas emissions vary from economy to economy, and region to region.  In fact, emissions levels have already begun to decline in OECD countries. As a whole, the OECD will see emissions drop by more than 20 per cent from 2014 to 2040. Greenhouse gas levels will continue to grow initially in most of the non-OECD countries as they continue to develop economically. However, our Outlook shows that they will follow the pattern of more developed countries with emissions leveling off in the medium term.

Economies emit less when they decrease their energy intensity. Energy intensity is a measure of how much energy a given country requires to produce a measure of economic output, measured in BTU per dollar.

Innovation is an important factor in figuring energy intensity. As technology improves, the utility of each unit of energy increases. Spending approximately $1 billion per year on research and technology development, ExxonMobil is maintaining a leading role in technological innovation in the energy industry.

The process of innovation

ExxonMobil routinely conducts long-term scientific research, often in fields outside the company’s near-term business focus. This research has transformative potential not just for ExxonMobil, but for the economy and the environment.

Our efforts typically start by applying a “white paper” process to explore emerging technologies. These studies educate the company on technologies, define our potential contribution to science, and assess the future applicability of a technology to our business as well as to other industries. For example, recently a white paper on photovoltaics refined our views on solar energy-based electricity generation as reflected in our Outlook.

ExxonMobil also makes use of in-house capabilities to conduct life-cycle assessments (LCAs). LCAs are useful in understanding whether a technology can result in environmental improvements across a broad range of factors (e.g., GHGs, water, solid waste) versus an existing or alternative process. Our efforts help to develop consistent comparisons of energy alternatives, as well as to build and extend the science of LCAs by working with leading national laboratories and universities.

A history of technological contributions: solar

If a new technology is within our scope of expertise and has potential to be beneficial to the business, ExxonMobil devotes resources to understanding that technology.

For example, the photovoltaic principle was discovered in 1954 in Bell Laboratories as a byproduct of the development of transistors and was used extensively in the space industry beginning in the 1960s. Exxon researchers took this technology and were able to then significantly reduce its cost. The first commercial land-based solar cells were developed in Exxon's Solar Power Corporation laboratories in 1973, in Linden, NJ. Individual photovoltaic cells were combined into panels to provide the required voltage and power capability. Today, ExxonMobil makes Escorene™ Ultra EVA copolymer resins for photovoltaic cells.  The resins provide photovoltaic cells with a protective, adhesive layer between the electronic components and glass.

Potential game-changing tech: carbon capture

ExxonMobil leads in one of the most important next-generation technologies: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is the process by which carbon dioxide gas that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is separated, compressed and injected into underground geologic formations for permanent storage. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that fossil fuel power plants and large industrial facilities account for as much as 60 per cent of global carbon emissions. Thus, broad-based deployment of cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration has the potential to make a massive impact on the world’s greenhouse gas levels.

Currently, making use of CCS to reduce significant amounts of emissions is prohibitively expensive. However, ExxonMobil uses the technology during enhanced oil recovery, injecting captured and compressed carbon dioxide into depleted oil wells to make them more productive. This experience, combined with ongoing research and sequestration partnerships means that CCS may well become a viable and important emissions reduction option in the near future in large part due to what ExxonMobil is doing today.

ExxonMobil has a working interest in more than one-third of the world’s current carbon capture and sequestration capacity. We captured more than 6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide for sequestration in 2014 alone. This is the equivalent of eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 1 million passenger vehicles. The potential of this technology, however, is many times greater.

ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy, Inc. recently announced an agreement to pursue novel technology in power plant carbon dioxide capture through a new application of carbonate fuel cells, which could substantially reduce costs and lead to a more economical pathway toward large-scale application globally.

Two years of comprehensive laboratory tests have demonstrated that the unique integration of two existing technologies – carbonate fuel cells and natural gas-fired power generation – captures carbon dioxide more efficiently than existing scrubber conventional capture technology. The potential breakthrough comes from an increase in electrical output using the fuel cells, which generate power, compared to a nearly equivalent decrease in electricity using conventional technology.

The resulting net benefit has the potential to substantially reduce costs associated with carbon capture for natural gas-fired power generation, compared to the expected costs associated with conventional separation technology. A key component of the research will be to validate initial projected savings of up to one-third.

The scope of the agreement will initially focus for about one to two years on how to further increase efficiency in separating and concentrating carbon dioxide from the exhaust of natural gas-fueled power turbines. Depending on reaching several milestones, the second phase will more comprehensively test the technology for another one to two years in a small-scale pilot project prior to integration at a larger-scale pilot facility. Read more about it on Energy Factor.

Potential game-changing tech: advanced biofuels

As governments seek to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, mandates and financing for advanced biofuels will be on the rise. First-generation biofuels, those derived from corn and sugar cane, make an important contribution to the current fuel energy mix, but their net-greenhouse gas benefits are questionable.

In 2011, we conducted an LCA to assess the impact of algal biofuel production on GHG emissions, land use, and water use. The study, completed in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Synthetic Genomics Inc., demonstrated that with further research and development, algae fuels can be produced with freshwater consumption equivalent to petroleum refining, and enable lower GHG emissions.

Our initial analysis suggests that with much further R&D, it may be possible that new algae and biomass conversion technologies could play a role in transportation fuel supplies, while reducing greenhouse-gas and land-use impacts as compared to first-generation biofuels.

Innovation and policy

ExxonMobil is committed to investing in research and development of next-generation technologies across a broad spectrum of promising frontiers – both directly and in partnerships with leading institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Achieving large-scale changes in the energy sector will require long-term investments in research to develop cost-efficient solutions that are capable of broad commercial application. In order to have the flexibility to invest heavily in research and development, predictable cost analyses are incredibly important.

A uniform cost of carbon is critical to achieving this financial environment, which is why ExxonMobil has long endorsed a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most simple and effective climate policy option. Adoption of such a policy by governments – in place of the current arbitrary patchwork of subsidies and mandates that distort markets, create investment risks, raise energy costs, and stifle innovation – would help to keep energy reliable and affordable while speeding the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Society will need sound, market-based policies to unleash the full potential of these and all other cost-effective technologies. The breakthrough of shale technology in North America is an instructive example of innovation borne by competitive markets. Industry and governments worldwide must work together to ensure that our actions today can allow these technologies and tomorrow’s breakthroughs to promote better lives for generations to come.