Every article I’ve seen on this makes sure to point out the irony, but I guess people can’t help themselves. Exxon Mobil Corp, the big oil company and the world’s largest gasoline refiner, is helping to develop a key component of lithium-ion batteries that can be used in hybrid cars. While Exxon won’t make the actual lithium-ion batteries, its scientists have developed a better plastic separator film – a key component. The separator film helps to keep the batteries from overheating and exploding, which is one of the problems holding lithium-ion batteries back from more widespread use in hybrid cars. The Exxon separator supposedly can withstand temperatures up to 374 degrees, which is about 85 degrees hotter than the current crop of separator films can withstand. The ability to stand up to higher temps reduces the risk of explosion.
While right now the Exxon product is more expensive than other separator films, they are working hard to bring the cost down. The auto industry wants separator film suppliers to cut their cost in half without giving up safety features. Ted J. Miller, Ford’s senior manager of energy storage and research says that battery companies and suppliers will need to make a big up front investment to achieve this. Exxon certainly has an advantage in this area. As Mr. Miller says, “I need people with deep pockets. Exxon has deep pockets.” As an example of those deep pockets, Exxon expects to shortly break ground on a $300 million manufacturing plant in Gumi, South Korea. As Jim Harris, Senior VP of Exxon’s chemical division says, “We’re going to put our corporate muscle behind this and make it a reality.”
Overall, I think this is a good thing. Bringing the next generation of hybrids, electric cars and alternative fuels to market is going to take massive investment. Government can do some, but most will come from the private market. While the irony of an oil company investing in technology that reduces the use of its major product is certainly obvious, it shows that maybe major oil companies are starting to think about how they will make money and be viable in a post peak oil world. They certainly have the money for the investment, and if they want to help drive the change to hybrid and electric cars, then they are certainly entitled to profit from it.