Physics students visit LaBarge’s Exxon Mobil plant

The Cokeville High School physics class visited the Exxon Mobil gas plant in LaBarge in November. The students learned about the complicated processes involved with working with gases. (COURTESY PHOTO)

LABARGE — On Nov. 16, our school’s physics class had the opportunity to take a field trip to the Exxon Mobil plant near LaBarge. This trip was made possible by Exxon employee Todd Plowman, the father of Drake Plowman. Exxon’s amazing staff helped us to learn about what Exxon is and how it operates.

Plowman and other Exxon engineers first gave us a presentation about what goes on at Exxon, then they helped lead a tour all over the plant. After a great barbecue lunch, they showed us control panels where we got to meet the actual people who run them and they showed us the machinery that helps accomplish what they do there. They allowed a lot of questions and were very open to talk about whatever it was we wanted to know.

Exxon is unique because not only does it pull its gas out of the ground on its own, it also processes the gases. It is important to note that Exxon does not pull out gas like the kind that you would put in your car. Exxon has a cavity full of gas under LaBarge that they pull from. It includes many different kinds of gases like nitrogen (7%), helium (.6%), carbon dioxide (65%), hydrogen sulfide (5%), and methane (21%).

The gases all have different levels of value, with some being useful and some being harmful. The gases Exxon makes money from are the rare helium (the majority of the money) and methane. Helium is used in all kinds of things like rockets, computers, and MRI machines. Methane is mostly used to help heat homes.

Some gases are very harmful. Carbon dioxide is a harmful greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. Exxon has found many creative ways to use carbon dioxide. They sell some of it to other fossil fuel companies which use it to help extract their natural gas. The carbon dioxide they can’t use will be injected back into the ground.

One of the biggest problems they deal with is H2S, or hydrogen sulfide. This gas is extremely dangerous and can cause rapid death even at very low levels of it. While they used to use this gas to produce sulfur, that project has been shut down and all H2S is now inserted back into the ground. This was not because of death, something that has not happened since a worker fell off scaffolding in the early stages of construction. Rather, it was simply due to the inability to profit from sulfur.

The way that they process the gasses they pull out of the ground is fairly complicated; however, the main idea of it is to separate the gasses from each other using Selexol, a solvent that can capture different kinds of gasses. After the gasses are separated they use a liquefaction process which involves cooling the gas a lot.

They have to cool helium to less than -400 degrees Fahrenheit! They do this because as a liquid it is easier to transport on their trucks and it is a much more efficient and economical way to store it.

Exxon is also bridging the gap between natural gasses and renewable energy by proving that natural gas can be clean. Exxon acknowledges that climate change is a real issue that is in some way caused by human interference.

But, rather than do nothing and try to make money while they can, Exxon has a carbon capture program that will help them meet their goal of being carbon neutral as a plant by 2030 and being carbon neutral as a company by 2050.

These efforts are certainly felt by the country. Just one well that stores carbon could help reduce more greenhouse gas emissions that the entire electric vehicle industry does at the moment. Carbon capture is the process of capturing the unwanted carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the extraction process at Exxon) and storing it deep in the ground rather than in the atmosphere where it can be very harmful.

All in all, this trip to Exxon was very interesting and memorable. We were able to learn all about how their process works, what they actually do at Exxon, their extensive safety measures, and how they are helping create a greener future.