Honors Gallery

National Laboratory Partnership with ExxonMobil Research & Engineering

Award: Outstanding Partnership

Year: 2020

Award Type: Regional

Region: Mid-Continent

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Three U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories have cooperatively developed and executed a 10-year, $100,000,000 collaboration with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company to advance transformative energy technologies that could be brought to commercial scale. 

The agreement between the energy giant and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Idaho National Laboratory (INL), and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is one of the largest public-private partnerships ever established between DOE national laboratories and the private sector, and exemplifies DOE’s commitment to cross-cutting, result-driven research initiatives.  

“The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is excited to work with ExxonMobil to develop scalable energy solutions for the future and facilitate research partnerships across the national lab system,” said Martin Keller, director of NREL. “Our partnerships with industry, government, academia and other research organizations drive the collaboration and innovation that is integral to revolutionizing the global energy landscape. By working side-by-side with ExxonMobil researchers, this partnership provides an unprecedented opportunity to explore new technologies and transform energy through science.”  

The partnership leverages existing projects at both ExxonMobil and NREL to identify overlapping opportunities to collaboratively accelerate and magnify the impact of research and development of future low-carbon energy innovations. It has already generated several funded projects among multiple national laboratories. Potential future projects include research and development into biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and life cycle analyses of energy technologies.   

“The partnership with the national labs really goes back to the fundamental challenge that we're facing as a society, which is: How do you provide scalable energy to nine billion people while addressing the risks of climate change?” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil. 

“What excites me,” Keller said, “is that there are different mindsets coming together in a breeding ground for tremendous breakthrough ideas.” 

The collaborative framework covers two separate paths for funding research at DOE’s national laboratories, led by NREL. Traditional projects, which could include DOE resources, are executed under a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA), while privately funded projects of strategic interest to ExxonMobil may be funded through the agreement to commercialize technology (ACT).  

The master agreement delineates these research paths and facilitates collaboration by scientists and engineers across organizations to expedite the exchange of technical ideas. Intellectual property (IP) agreements were negotiated in parallel for the CRADA and ACT, respectively, to address the availability of pre-existing (background IP) and the disbursement of IP developed under each agreement (subject IP). 

A collaboration of this size and duration required skilled navigation of DOE regulations governing partnerships, a sophisticated approach to IP management, and a commitment from parties to address contentious issues. It involves steering committee review of potential projects, allows ExxonMobil to engage other national labs through its network of affiliates, and establishes a process for hosting visiting scientists.   

NREL led the first round of contract negotiations and partnered with NETL and INL on later rounds. ExxonMobil’s ability to access the capabilities of many national laboratories efficiently through one set of agreements was a high priority for the company.  

The partnership is expected to foster research collaboration on projects with the potential to move beyond the laboratory, resulting in greater market deployment of laboratory-developed technologies via licensing agreements. 

“What excites me,” Keller said, “is that there are different mindsets coming together in a breeding ground for tremendous breakthrough ideas.” 

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