But before all that, I spent my childhood in India’s most populous cities, including Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai, where, despite the cosmopolitan setting, the threat of an energy shortage loomed often.
Access to safe, reliable energy is critical to societal and economic development. That was something my father understood, and a lesson he passed on to me. As a 35-year-old researcher at ExxonMobil, I’m working on projects that couldn’t have existed during his career, but I still prioritize that same goal of improving energy security.
Currently, we are in the midst of a major transition, exchanging carbon-intensive fuels like coal for a lower-carbon mix of renewables and natural gas. As billions of global consumers are joining the global middle class, the demand for energy (mobility, housing, industry) goes up. There is an urgency to global energy demand, and it’s our job to meet it.
However, as I envision the energy future, I also see an opportunity to satisfy those needs with lower-carbon energy. Developing nations that are building new energy infrastructures, could prioritize the use of lower-emission energy sources like natural gas and renewables. With these advancements in lower-carbon supplies, we can meet the dual challenge of providing people around the world with reliable energy and fewer emissions.
My role in ExxonMobil Research and Engineering (EMRE) is to help progress groundbreaking technologies and initiatives aimed at meeting the above challenge.
One particularly important piece of the puzzle, my area of expertise, is advanced separation. Right now, refineries separate the different components of crude oil, like lubricants and gasoline, through a process called distillation – essentially boiling hydrocarbons. That process involves massive amounts of heat, making it energy-intensive.
But what if refineries could separate products without heat?
I worked with a team of experts from ExxonMobil, my alma mater Georgia Tech and the Imperial College London to develop a new non-phase change approach using filtration. Specifically, we developed membranes that, under the right amount of pressure, could filter at the molecular level at room temperature. When scaled to industrial levels, the technology could significantly reduce ExxonMobil’s energy consumption and emissions – and, in the process, shrink the carbon footprint of everyday products like gasoline and components used to make plastics.
Membrane technology could also be a key enabler to carbon capture and storage, for example the use of ultra-thin filters to significantly reduce CO2-emissions from coal-fired power plants.These technologies need to be scaled up as refineries won’t accept a technology just because it’s new and sophisticated. This is a decade-long process from a concept in a lab to a robust commercial tool.
For most people my age, it’s tough to think in multiple years, rather than weeks or months. It might take decades, But I often look back just a generation ago to the late 1970s, when scientists began scaling up a new, ambitious method of desalination. Rather than boil sea water, they created a cutting-edge membrane filter. Today, companies are building energy-efficient desalination plants able to filter a record 900,000 cubic meters of water (that’s 240 million gallons) daily using the reverse osmosis membrane technology.
Though it took time to scale the idea, we’re seeing an impact that was once unimaginable.
Growing up, I watched my father devote his career to power India’s 1 billion people: a herculean task at the time. Now I’m setting my sights on the entire globe. It sounds ambitious, but I’ve devoted my career to bringing energy to the world’s near 8 billion people – and shrinking our carbon footprint in the process.