Cathedral to science

The first thing that you notice when you enter the Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam (STCA) on the north bank of the IJ is its sheer size. Your eyes are lifted upwards to the vast roof that covers 80,000m2 of laboratories, test halls, workshops and offices. Even on a grey day, the light streams through the glass walls.

There is a perception of space. But how could there not be in a building the equivalent area of 11 UEFA-sized football pitches? And yet this cathedral to science and modernity has an intimacy of its own, where employees are encouraged to mingle and share ideas.

Green credentials

The building boasts its own green credentials and is virtually CO2 neutral. Temperature is controlled by an underground heat/cold storage, in combination with heat pumps that are powered by electricity generated by Shell’s wind farm in the North Sea.

Although there is a decisiveness to the structure, it is amazingly informal. In reality, nothing has been left to chance. Walkways linking different parts of the building are strategically dotted with comfortable sofas and chairs. It is here that scientists and researchers rub shoulders with colleagues over a cup of coffee and the next innovative idea is conceived.

A multidisciplinary rubbing of shoulders

Interaction between people from different disciplines, backgrounds and experience is encouraged. Site manager Hans Peter Calis (or ‘HP’ as he is generally called) says it is a far cry from Shell’s previous research centre, which was in the same area. “We had a research location here with 40 or so buildings and people would come in the morning and go to their respective workplaces, do their thing and go home in the afternoon.”

“We came to realise that innovation is like a contact sport like hockey or football. It only gets fun and productive if people bump into each other. If you want people to have these chance encounters where real inspiration starts, you need to put them under one roof. In terms of connectivity, having everyone in one big building contributes enormously to the exchange of ideas.’

Commitment to R&D – and Amsterdam

R&D Shell spends more than any other international oil and gas company on the development of innovative technology. STCA is one of three major Shell technology centres worldwide and invests about $1 million a day. It’s a significant sum of money and adds up to about one quarter of the more than $1 billion that Shell spends on R&D annually.

HP says the fact that Shell decided not to site its new research centre elsewhere demonstrates the company’s commitment to Amsterdam as a location. He points out that a lot of thought went into the decision-making since no one builds a technology hub to last just a few years.

STCA’s main purpose is to create new and innovative technology that can be applied to such things as the design of a new platform or refinery. Once the technology has been developed, the centre also supports its operation. Within Shell, STCA is known for its expertise in enhanced oil recovery, gas technology and CO2 capture and storage, hydro processing, base chemicals and alternative energy solutions such as biomass usage.

International diversity

Although there are only 1,000 people working on the vast site, the workforce is very international. Some 27% per cent of the staff comes from 50 different countries. While some stay for a few years, others never leave. HP says Amsterdam’s easy transport connections to Europe and the rest of the world makes it very appealing to expats.

“If we want the best brains in the world and to attract people to a location, it needs to be an international location. Amsterdam is a very international city. It ranks high in many of the lists of places to be.” He adds: “Particularly for international staff, if you want someone to move to the Netherlands you need to offer them something. Amsterdam is an attractive city in which to offer people work. I’m always amazed at how excited people get about the idea of working and work in Amsterdam.”

Cleaner, cheaper…

Such is the range of challenging and rewarding projects on offer at the technology centre that scientists from around the world are keen to work there. Converting gas into liquid form is one of the key areas of research at STCA and Shell is considered the world leader in this technology. Gas as a liquid is much easier to transport to markets around the globe. It is also cleaner and cheaper.

Shell started to work on alternatives to crude oil in 1973 and built its first pilot plant in Amsterdam in 1983. Minimising CO2 emissions is part of STCA’s mission. HP says that by producing novel products, Shell can help customers become more energy efficient. “Electricity from gas produces half the amount of CO2 compared to producing the same amount of electricity from coal.”

Innovate or die

As well as being recognised as one of the key players in the international oil industry, Shell has a strong reputation for developing new technology. HP sees innovation as key to Shell’s future and warns that: “If we don’t keep innovating, at some point we become obsolete,” says HP.

“I like to call it the development of things. It’s not like we make a discovery, like something is there and you find it, you are suddenly rich or you solve all the problems of the world. It’s more like Einstein said: ‘One per cent inspiration and 99% perspiration.’ Breakthroughs often take a long time and long commitments.”

STCA’s influence is felt beyond Amsterdam and its employees can share their knowledge, expertise and equipment with several Dutch universities and institutions. They collaborate closely with Delft University of Technology, for instance, on geophysics projects such as enhanced oil recovery and fluid flow. They also collaborate with Eindhoven University of Technology and Shell’s largest research partner in the Netherlands, Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).

Onward and upward

HP acknowledges that although mankind has made great strides and become twice as energy efficient over the last half century, there is still much to do.

“We have increased our efficiency by a factor of two. The great thing is, we can do it again. It may take another 50 years, and even if you take that into account we will still need 60% more energy than today, just because the population is increasing and people are getting more prosperous. From that perspective, that’s why we have to innovate.”

Read more testimonials from Amsterdam's tech sector.