Research collaborations for cleaner, more energy-dense biofuels and recyclable plastics are at the heart of a new agreement between Exxon Mobil Corp. and Department of Energy laboratories.

Bill Farris, associate director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., explained that the agreement will give scientists better insights into future energy markets and ways to scale up cleaner forms of energy.

“Exxon has to think about how you scale things up,” Farris said in an interview about Exxon’s commitment to contribute $100 million to research by NREL and 16 other DOE laboratories over the next 10 years. “That’s probably one of the things we’re most excited about: taking things into the marketplace at scale. NREL could never do that alone.”

He said discussions that led to the agreement last week—one of the largest research projects that DOE labs have with a commercial company—started with biofuels and then expanded to a broad array of joint research discussions that are still underway. The labs and Exxon started talking about the agreement in November 2017.

They began with Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering Co. “Sparks started to fly, we developed a good relationship,” recalled Farris.

In a statement released last week, Swarup said the research partnership is intended to “explore ways to bring biofuels and carbon capture and [energy] storage to commercial uses across the power generation, transportation, and manufacturing sectors.”

Exxon is the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, and it has stressed that the agreement with DOE is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “on a global basis.”

Biofuels will likely be essential to that effort in the transportation sector, explained Farris, because while research has shown that electric cars can reduce greenhouse gases, the trucking and aircraft industries will require more energy-dense fuels to reduce their emissions. NREL has been experimenting with various biofuels to deliver extra energy, and Exxon has focused on algae-based fuels to fill the gap. But it will likely take more experiments and collaborations to see what technology can be scaled up for global use.

One possibility that’s intriguing researchers is fuel made from captured carbon dioxide emissions. Both NREL and its sister laboratory in West Virginia, DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), are working on capturing emissions and putting them to use.

Exxon is interested in that, as well, along with ways to store energy. The use of hydrogen-based fuels as a way to store renewable forms of energy from electricity sources, such as solar and wind power, is another research objective.

“We see renewable energy producing electricity at very, very low costs in the future,” explained Farris, pointing to uses in transportation, buildings, factories and homes.

NREL has smaller research partnerships with other major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Norway’s Equinor ASA and France’s Total SA. “They’re all trying to figure out what future markets are going to look like. Where Exxon is coming from, for example, the planet is going to have 9 billion people, and the quality of their life depends on that energy, and that energy has to have lower carbon,” added Farris.

One of the questions under scrutiny by oil companies, he said, is what future gas stations will look like. While Exxon hasn’t raised the question yet in its discussions with DOE, “I have to think they’re interested in that,” Farris said.

Major oil companies own a large number of gas stations, and in the future they may be required to supply fuel cell-powered cars with hydrogen to recharge electric cars quickly and to supply biofuels for heavy trucks.

Exxon, Farris noted, has a substantial presence in the chemical industry, and one of its research objectives is plastics that don’t use petroleum feedstocks, or that can be recycled to rid the world of its plastic waste problem, which is mounting annually.

In the near future, dozens of Exxon scientists from Texas and the East Coast will be coming to Golden to work on some of these projects with their counterparts at NREL. “If you can increase the contact time between researchers, we think you get better results,” Farris said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news