The leading edge of scientific and technological research is right here in Bartlesville.
The Phillips 66 Research Center sits on a sprawling 440-acre campus that is home to Ph.D.-level researchers and other employees of the company’s Technology organization. Together, they execute a research program that puts scientific rigor and new technology behind the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
“We’re focusing our technology program to help our operations run better by using less energy and less water. We’re investing in sustainable technologies and renewable energies,” said Greg Garland, Phillips 66 chairman and CEO. “All of this has the combined effect of making us a better business that runs smarter and takes care of the communities where we live and work.”
In fact, Phillips 66 is one of the only downstream energy companies to have a full-scale research and development program. Dedicating the time and resources to better understand, monitor and manage the environmental impact of energy manufacturing is one of the ways Phillips 66 fulfills its vision to provide energy and improve lives.
Research with a sustainability focus
The Bartlesville-based research campus, near downtown, includes 44 buildings that house a variety of research laboratories that enable experiments in chemistry, microbiology and physics.
In some labs, researchers are looking at ways to better understand the fundamental science of how emissions from industry, automobiles, and other sources interact with our atmosphere.
“The chemistry in the atmosphere is complicated,” said Randy Heald, Phillips 66 manager, Sustainability Research. “The scientific models that are used to support the development of regulations have some limitations. We’re working to improve their performance.”
In the “Air Group,” researchers are doing experiments in small reaction chambers that allow them to simulate atmospheric conditions. They’re trying to improve the understanding of how volatile chemicals, such as propane, behave in the atmosphere and contribute to the formation of smog and haze.
Another prime focus area for researchers is water — both using it more efficiently in operations, and in treating wastewater effectively before it’s released back into the environment.
“Some people may be surprised to know that natural microorganisms are at the heart of the wastewater treatment process and have been for many decades. They actually remove many of the substances that get incorporated in water during its use in a refinery — a very natural way of cleaning it,” said Heald.
Phillips 66 researchers are developing techniques to support the performance of these microorganisms. By incorporating film-forming support materials and adjusting process conditions, the microorganisms can become more specialized for tasks like breaking down a wider range of chemical constituents in water. The goal is to improve wastewater treatment systems to make them more robust, and to deliver the highest levels of performance.
Sustainability Research is also home to two alternative energy research programs, one involving the development of solid-oxide fuel cells and the other involving the development of flexible solar cells.
In the fuel cell program, researchers are developing a device that converts the chemical energy contained in natural gas directly into electrical power. Because of this direct conversion, which doesn’t involve combustion, the process has very low emissions and generates electricity with approximately two times the efficiency of a natural gas power plant.
One of the most high-profile successes to come out of the research center involves flexible solar cells. Working with these solar cells, Phillips 66 researchers have broken a number of world records for power conversion efficiency, bringing the technology closer to the possibility of commercialization.
Phillips 66 solar cell technology is based on proprietary conductive polymers. They can be manufactured with low-cost printing technology, and will enable the development of flexible, lightweight and transparent solar power modules.
“Their unique features open the doors to many interesting applications such as building materials with integrated solar cells,” Heald said. “They’re environmentally friendly, and we’re getting closer to making them viable for real-world applications.”
Many of the technologies developed in Phillips 66 labs are valuable outside the company, or even the energy industry. Patented technology is often licensed to other companies who can benefit from the research done in Bartlesville.
Science in the Community
Ann Oglesby, vice president, Technology, is the new senior company executive in Bartlesville and oversees the research center and other corporate functions. An Oklahoma State University graduate and chemical engineer by training, Oglesby has worked in a number of technical and leadership positions throughout her 30-year career. Having been away for 13 years, Oglesby and her husband are looking forward to moving back to Bartlesville.
“It’s striking to me how the presence of the Phillips 66 Research Center really contributes to the culture of Bartlesville. Here we have a strong community of world-class researchers and engineers doing cutting-edge work, and they help foster an emphasis on curiosity and learning that feeds into the wonderful schools and community resources here,” Oglesby said.
In fact, the Phillips 66 Research Center serves as a classroom for some of the Bartlesville area’s brightest teachers. Last year, the company launched the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Educator Internship Program. In the inaugural year, the company selected four teachers from a highly competitive pool of applicants to help perform hands-on industrial research during their summer break.
During the 10-week program, the teacher-interns focused on projects such as using spectroscopy and modeling to support air quality and creating tools to calculate chemical concentrations in environmental chambers. In addition, the teachers improved their safety awareness, computer skills and knowledge of up-to-date technologies.
“It would be a huge benefit for more educators to spend their summers in the real business world, truly learning about and working in the workforce that we are preparing our students for,” said Renee Arnold, one of the participants from Madison Middle School.
Phillips 66 also hosts the annual Bartlesville District Science Fair at the research center. The event celebrated a milestone 66th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the company added a new award for sustainability projects, and invited five VIP judges, including University of Tulsa’s Jim Sorem, dean of the College of Engineering & Natural Sciences, and Michael Teague, the secretary of energy and environment for the state of Oklahoma.
“The number 66 is significant to our company, the Bartlesville community, and to me personally,” said Garland, in an address to the fair participants in February. “Few would have guessed at that first event 66 years ago how critical science would have become over the next seven decades. And few could have predicted the role technology would play in meeting the many challenges – and seizing the opportunities – in today’s world.”
For Phillips 66, technology’s role for the next 66 years is certain to be significant, as researchers make progress on energy production that’s cleaner, more efficient, and more sustainable. It’s a great example of the real-world meaning of Phillips 66’s values of safety, honor and commitment.