Most people use their daily commute to forget about work. They turn on the radio and try to tune out the traffic and the world, at least for a little while. For scientist Barb Whittaker, though, the commute from her home in the country is a daily reminder of her work: creating fuel additives that protect engines in order to help improve fuel efficiency.
Whittaker’s destination each day is a lab at an ExxonMobil research facility, where she draws from her commute and more than 30 years’ experience to give her unique insights into what consumers want and need from their gasoline. She’s part of a team led by senior researcher Joan Axelrod that recently developed a breakthrough fuel additive that makes Synergy gasoline unique, providing better gas mileage and lower emissions, as well as improving engine responsiveness.
The exhilarating and often exhausting road to that final product at times felt circuitous to Axelrod and Whittaker. But actually, the two-year development of Synergy fuels was rapid compared to other fuel additives, which can take as long as five years to come to market. Still, the peaks and valleys of the inventive process can be grueling, especially on an accelerated timeline.
“You have to sweat the details,” said Whittaker. “Additives that work in the lab may encounter problems en route to storage facilities, while being stored and then getting to retailers. You have to look at what happens throughout the distribution system well before a single drop is pumped into car’s fuel tank.”
In addition, the team needed to understand not just average users, but those with extreme cases… from long commutes like Whittaker’s, to the delivery vehicles that connect us to online retailers. How do you make the additive perform at its best all the time?
To answer that question, Axelrod pooled the talents of a team of scientists across a spectrum of disciplines—chemical engineers, chemists, mechanical engineers—with bachelors’, masters’ and doctorate degrees.
“Listening to consumers and then delivering on their expectations is important,” said Whittaker. “We’ll conduct endless batteries of tests to find every potential problem in every possible condition for the new formulation. If an ingredient fails in the lab, if the fuel becomes overly sticky or falls apart under certain conditions, I need to know why and fix it before it’s commercialized.”
Whittaker’s tests were only the beginning. The team’s engine expert, Yi Xu, then subjected Synergy fuels to rigorous tests using different types of engines and running conditions. Additionally, the team tested Synergy fuels in extreme temperatures, simulating conditions like the cold of a northern Minnesota winter and the starting and stopping of a postal vehicle in Phoenix. They made sure engines were hitting performance benchmarks as well as EPA standards before introducing the product to the public.
“You feel relieved when you get a product released, but also nervous and excited because it’s a contribution visible to so many people at the pump,” said Axelrod. “It is years of ups and downs and sleepless nights, then suddenly it’s over.” The true reward for Whittaker and her team is when consumers pump the fuel into their tanks and enjoy its benefits. That’s the ultimate accomplishment for the researcher and labs behind cutting-edge fuels like ExxonMobil Formula 1 racing fuels.
“We’re a small group that’s able to make a big impact,” added Whittaker. “We share each other’s trials and triumphs. It’s quite a ride.”