For more than 15 years, Michele Thomas has had a front-row seat in the relationship between ExxonMobil and the University of Texas at Austin (UT). She’s helped recruit talented UT graduates. She’s worked to champion research funds. She’s even sent two of her four children to school there.
Now Thomas is one of the ExxonMobil architects of a new partnership between the two Texas leaders that promises to bring innovative ideas and solutions to the world’s energy challenges. The idea is to further develop existing and next-generation energy sources while also reducing emissions. It’s a partnership built on collaboration, with some of the company’s own scientists working regularly on campus.
“It takes more than endowments to really learn how to address our future energy needs,” explains Thomas, scientist and liaison for the new UT partnership. “We have to be invested personally in being part of the solution and work closely with institutions like UT, where the next big idea is going to come from.”
Those big ideas—technological breakthroughs in areas like energy storage, integration of renewables into the grid and carbon sequestration, to name a few—will be facilitated by the combination of UT’s broad research base and ExxonMobil’s broad industry experience.
“UT has a long-standing reputation in advanced computing and environmental science in addition to oil and gas,” explains Thomas. “We want to leverage that expertise and bring our own to the table to focus on new technologies that will solve problems 20, 30, 40 years down the road.”
UT’s renowned Energy Institute will help drive much of the research coming out of this agreement. The Institute’s strength is fostering interdisciplinary collaboration among colleges and schools across the campus, bringing together students, faculty and external parties, like ExxonMobil, to share knowledge and create a community of scholars that can tackle the tough energy challenges the world faces.
“ExxonMobil has a strong fundamental research program and is also interested in exploring research areas to complement their base program,” said Tom Edgar, director of UT’s Energy Institute, veteran energy researcher and tenured professor with 40 years on the faculty. “By partnering with UT, the company can tap into the trends and cutting-edge research across academic disciplines.”
ExxonMobil and UT are longtime research partners. However, until this latest five-year agreement, signed on July 29, the research was largely piecemeal. Working project by project required time and negotiation that took scientists away from their work. The new agreement changes that, thanks to a master agreement that lets researchers focus on the science.
Months before the agreement was officially signed, scientists and researchers from ExxonMobil and UT were already working together to map out projects to conduct together.
Potential exciting research avenues include advanced materials, water-resource management, modeling complex systems, carbon storage and alternative energy. The group also discussed where it might make sense to connect projects across disciplines, sharing expertise that might otherwise be sequestered in specific colleges on campus.
“The goal is to get people together and start learning from each other, identifying opportunities across the energy spectrum, across disciplines, and let cross-fertilization start to generate new and better ideas for the future,” said Edgar.
Once the project list is finalized, UT graduate students and postdoctoral candidates will be chosen for faculty-led research with the title of ExxonMobil Emerging Technology Fellows. These fellows will meet with each other and with their ExxonMobil collaborators to talk about their work and to discuss broader scientific questions related to meeting future energy needs.
This is one of many ExxonMobil university collaborations designed to address the dual challenge of meeting increased demand for energy while reducing emissions.