There are no shortage of conspiracy theories about the role of big oil companies in keeping hybrid and electric cars off our roads. Ironically, Exxon Mobil could play a part in ushering in the next generation of hybrids.

The oil giant has dedicated 14 Ph.D.s in Japan, New Jersey and Texas to furthering the development of a plastic separator film needed for the lithium ion batteries, which could significantly boost energy storage and the power capabilities of future hybrids.

The company plans to break ground soon on a $300 million manufacturing facility in Gumi, South Korea. “We’re going to put our corporate muscle behind this and make it a reality,” said Jim Harris, senior vice president of Exxon’s chemical company. “We are interested in good business opportunities, and that is what this is.”

Exxon’s separator film was used in the first commercially produced lithium ion batteries for Sony cell phones. Today, its separators are used in about 35% of the lithium ion batteries used in electronic devices.

Exxon is by no means the only company working on lithium battery components, chemistries, and systems cars. The market for automotive lithium ion batteries could become a multi-billion dollar industry. The separator-film component will represent about 12% of the total battery-pack cost.

Lithium ion batteries, which may be introduced in hybrids as early as 2009 or 2010, are expected to supplant the nickel metal hydride batteries found in all hybrid cars today. One of the major players in the design and manufacturing of nickel metal hydride batteries is Cobasys, which—you guessed it—is half-owned by oil-giant Chevron.