By Molly A. Seltzer
Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and ExxonMobil have renewed a five-year partnership aimed at accelerating the science behind next-generation energy and environmental technologies. The collaboration is executed through Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership (E-ffiliates), a corporate membership program administered by the Andlinger Center.
“Working with companies is a critical piece of translating fundamental knowledge and discoveries into real-world impact. We challenge ExxonMobil scientists to explore the fundamental scientific questions that underpin technology development in new ways, and they challenge our scientists to think about the practical considerations of scaling technologies,” said Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, Andlinger Center director and the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering. “It’s a win-win and ultimately helps us carry out a core tenet of our mission, which is to reduce emissions globally while improving access to energy around the world.”
ExxonMobil has been a charter member of E-ffiliates since 2015. In the next phase of the partnership, the Andlinger Center seeks to leverage its strength in modeling energy systems and its focus on identifying barriers to decarbonization– technical, political, and behavioral –to help facilitate a structural change from a carbon-intensive to a low-carbon or net-zero economy and society.
In the first five-year agreement, ExxonMobil supported 29 individual projects and contributed to a fund that sustained several interdisciplinary projects from faculty members across campus. The research projects helped to advance understanding of the properties that govern how sea-ice melts; discover how electrical charge flows through organic polymers to lay the foundations for low-cost, easily-made solar technologies; and, explain how the Southern Ocean kept CO2 in the ocean during ice ages and then released it gradually over recent millennia. Current ongoing collaborations include investigations on 2-D atomic crystals and their heterostructures, atmospheric ammonia mapping, and decarbonization pathways.
In one example partly funded by ExxonMobil, Barry Rand, associate professor of electrical engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, investigated a new form of a solar cell known as perovskite photovoltaics. Rand, who is also the associate director for external partnerships at the center, said working with a scientific counterpart at ExxonMobil allowed his group to approach the material, halide perovskites, from a different angle than he previously considered, and to break new ground in the field by focusing on their electrochemical properties. This approach led him to discover several ways that perovskites degrade outside a laboratory environment, from which he is now developing strategies to stabilize these materials for practical use. The project success also led to follow-on funding from the Department of Energy.
“ExxonMobil’s collaborative relationship with Princeton’s Andlinger Center builds on decades-long interactions with the University, supporting the essential research in science, engineering and humanities needed to address national and global issues,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “We look forward to our renewed partnership and will continue to work side by side with Princeton faculty and students to develop innovative solutions to help us meet society’s dual challenge of providing energy to those who need it and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
In the next phase of collaborative research through E-ffiliates, the company plans to focus on understanding energy transitions and identifying possible pathways that could lead to a decarbonized domestic and global energy sector, along with exploring geological storage of CO2, Swarup said.
“Researchers at ExxonMobil are learning a lot from us,” said Loo. “Through the Net-Zero America Project, for example, we are contextualizing what the energy transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 in the United States can look like, and outlining the possible pathways of getting there.”
To date, E-ffiliates members have contributed funding to projects involving 70 faculty members, researchers, and students. Other member companies are from the power, water, and telecommunications industries, and include PSEG, American Tower, and American Water. Since the program’s establishment in 2011, E-ffiliates members have participated in and supported the convening of government, industry, and academic stakeholders through workshops, retreats, and conferences organized by the Andlinger Center.