Where the molecules of the future are designed

Photo: Total

Solaize, near Lyon, France, is where tomorrow's lubricants and fuels are developed, on the lab benches of the CReS research center. The process is becoming ever faster and more challenging. Philippe Montantême, senior vice president, Strategy, Marketing & Research in Total's Marketing & Services (M&S) segment, explains why the pace of research and development has picked up lately.

Tackling energy challenges

The world needs energy — or rather energies, in the plural. But given climate issues, those energies must be kinder to the immediate environment — air, water, soil — and have a lower overall climate impact.

As deadlines loom, finding solutions is critical, whether that means being more frugal and energy-efficient or finding a lower-carbon global energy mix. In other words, new ways have to be found to produce and utilize fossil fuels and renewable energies must be developed.

Find out how 250 researchers work daily on innovations for common petroleum products.

Luckily, solutions already exist and initiatives have been taken at every level. There are international initiatives, via the annual Conferences of the Parties, or COP [to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change1] over the last 23 years; national measures, through proactive emission reduction policies that are proactive to differing extents; industry initiatives, led by the automotive, oil, property, energy and other sectors; and local action, at the city and regional level. And of course there are individual initiatives, since everyone is responsible for the consequences of their choices as consumers and the behaviors that go with them.

As a result, regulations are getting tougher, obligations are more widespread and civil society's expectations are higher. The end goal is to usher in an era of energy efficiency — in other words, to use equipment and infrastructure as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Innovation is an essential prerequisite for reaching that goal.

    Find out how 250 researchers work daily on innovations for common petroleum products.

    Speeding up innovation

    Located near Lyon, France, the Solaize Research Center (CReS) is a Total research and development facility with 250 researchers, chemists, tribologists2, mechanical engineers and data engineers. They work on refined petroleum products such as fuel additives, lubricants, asphalt and special fluids3.

    Focus areas include developments in durability, to make better use of equipment and protect it over time, and energy efficiency, so customers can use less fuel without sacrificing outcomes. At the same time, researchers ensure that products are safe for users. As a result of their work, M&S's R&D teams as a whole filed 50 patents in 2016. "We're looking at faster-paced, increasingly complex innovation," explains Philippe Montantême. "For example, car engines keep getting smaller and more complex. We've gone from using 10 to 12 liters of fuel to travel 100 kilometers to five or six; in the future that will drop to two or three. We must play a leading role in this trend." Adds the Total executive: "Although price is still a deciding factor, the idea of 'smarter, more frugal consumption' is now every bit as important. Customers want solutions that offer innovative performance or service while also protecting users and the environment."

    Designing molecules around needs

    This concept is energizing research and development processes.

    First, because product life cycles are getting shorter. The life of a product range has shrunk from between seven and 10 years to just a few, "which also spurs a greater need for research and development. For example, teams are already working on the next-generation Excellium fuel line4, expected to reach the market in 2020 or 2021, even though we've just launched the latest upgrade. So our researchers must work on shortening time to market," says Philippe Montantême. M&S's R&D is now applying a predictive process. "We use customer needs as the starting point to blueprint the ideal chemical structure that offers the specified properties. So we're looking for the best formulation to meet a need and, ultimately, plan its production via conventional manufacturing or using bio-compounds. At the same time, we must constantly focus on protecting users and the environment."

    Second, by incorporating digital technology into the development process of certain products. CReS has devised novel test methods to precisely measure product benefits. "In the field of fuels and lubricants, the vehicle is the ultimate arbiter," comments Philippe Montantême. "However, running a car for 200,000 kilometers is expensive and time-consuming. Numerical modeling lets us figure out which formula is the most efficient and how the molecules interact with one another."

    This doesn't stop engineers from getting their hands dirty — literally. "In 2015, CReS researchers brought in vehicles with high mileages to better understand customers' fuel issues," recalls Philippe Montantême. "The engines were disassembled one by one, and the grime on each engine part was analyzed in the lab to establish its source. That's how they came up with a new fuel formulation. Keep in mind that, worldwide, there are countless varieties of fuel tailored to the regulations of different countries and engines. It's a long-term, multi-faceted cycle that never ends!"

    CReS is also cultivating partnerships with top teams to quickly ramp up its skills and capabilities. "We have a vast ecosystem comprised of customers, Total's different business segments, the automotive industry and highly specialized universities," notes Philippe Montantême. "Now we can share our current research and future projects with them. Our longtime partnership with PSA Group, for example, helped us cut the carbon emissions of vehicles just off the production line by up to 5 percent using our factory fill oil5. We need R&D that is dynamic and innovative, meaning that we anticipate regulations, rather than wait for them."

    A new building dedicated to innovation

    CReS is now giving stakeholders a window into its work. "It was important to showcase our technological know-how," says Philippe Montantême. In May 2017, a new innovation" building opened its doors. It's a place where employees, partners and customers can meet to explore, interact and talk about research and innovation topics. "It has three areas. A showroom for CReS products and research activities, an auditorium, and creative rooms designed to give our employees a change of scenery through interactive applications and a different environment. It will give customers, prospects and manufacturing and marketing partners access to a world-class technological showcase."

    Innovation leads the charge when imagining the products of the future — a future that will include new transportation practices. Specifically, personal cars will be increasingly electric, trucks will use more natural gas vehicle fuel and there will be more biobased compounds in fuels, lubricants and special fluids. "We see these new characteristics as new opportunities. Every gram of carbon emitted will be tracked!" states Philippe Montantême in conclusion.

    1 This international agreement was adopted in 1992 at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to control the increase in human-generated greenhouse gas emissions that disrupt the climate.

    2 Tribology is the science of friction, wear and lubrication.

    3 Non-energy-related petroleum products such as solvents and paraffins.

    4 Fuels that can clean and protect engines, making them more efficient and economical and less polluting.

    5 The first fill oil in engines when they leave the factory.

    This page was paid for by Total. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.