Research: Then and now
In 1914, Shell built the first laboratory on the northern bank of the IJ. Researchers assessed the quality of crude oil extracted in the Dutch East Indies and other locations. The researchers then examined which products could be made from oil, such as bitumen, which is an important component of asphalt. So-called additives that improved engine efficiency and durability were also developed.
In 1927, the lab expanded with research into fertilisers, urea, catalysis, alcohols and ketones from petroleum products. Research into soaps and agricultural chemicals started soon after that. An increasing amount of attention was also being paid to translating the research results into industrial applications. Pilot plants were built and the engineers from Amsterdam started to become an indispensable link between lab research and ‘the field’.
Research work slowed down for a while during the Second World War. The lab used its knowledge differently in those years. For example, by converting cars for the use of city gas as fuel and researching how to process bulbs into edible products. Or by making candles from the paraffin that Shell still had on stock. After the end of the Second World War, the investments in research increased enormously and technological developments progressed very fast. Researchers worked together with universities in Amsterdam and Delft. More and more graduates ended up in the lab.
The research started expanding into gasification of coal and offshore drilling rigs for example. Tests were conducted in an engine lab using lubricants for petrol engines. All engines were kept in a single hall up until the early 1970s. “The noise would drive you crazy and it used to be boiling hot inside during the summer,” according to a mechanical engineer from that time. After a major modernisation, separate test rooms are created, so that the researchers no longer have to stand in the heat and noise of the engines. Digitisation ensures that data can be easily entered and processed. The motor lab moved to Hamburg in 2004.
The Shell lab turned out to be a breeding ground for technological highlights. An example is the gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. This is a technology that uses natural gas instead of oil to make liquid products such as fuels for diesel-powered cars and trucks or jet fuel. But it’s also used for raw materials for everyday products such as detergents, cosmetics and plastics. The knowledge and experience with the GTL process can now play an important role in the energy transition, because natural gas can be replaced as a raw material by green hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2).
Today’s research centre has a sustainable and innovative character. Researchers are working on the development of cleaner products and more efficient processes so that Shell can play an active role in the energy transition. From hydrogen to batteries, from driving electric vehicles to geothermal heat. Shell researchers look at the opportunities for both industry and consumers. Emissions from industry and Shell's own assets can be reduced, for example by means of the capture and underground storage of CO2. Digital technologies such as artificial intelligence are used, for example, to detect and prevent a malfunction, meaning that a plant does not need to be shut down.
Most of the 1,300 test installations and lab set-ups are designed, built and maintained in-house. This makes ETCA unique. The technologies that are used for this range from a lathe from 1948 to traditional glassblowing, but also state-of-the-art 3D printers.
In 2022, the research centre will start a new life as Energy Transition Campus Amsterdam. Cooperation between the business community and academics for the energy transition remains crucial. That is why Shell has decided to open the doors of the technology centre in Amsterdam to start-ups, scale-ups, knowledge institutes, academics and companies working on solutions for the energy transition. Shell hopes to bring the right parties together and to further stimulate fruitful collaborations; with Shell and with each other.
Energy has been key at ETCA for more than a hundred years. ETCA is one of the three largest Shell research centres worldwide. This is where new ideas, technology and decades of experience come together to meet the energy needs of today and tomorrow.