How Shell and Delft found each other

What would have become of TU Delft without Koninklijke Olie/Shell? The largest company in the Netherlands has always had an impact on technical education and research. Perhaps more so than any other company.  But let’s not exaggerate its role.

After the secession from Belgium in 1830, the Kingdom of the Netherlands had a lack of geological knowledge. Not too much of a problem, because the Dutch subsoil consisted of fine-grained clay with the occasional layer of sand. Not particularly useful. Mining was taught in Delft in the 19th century, but only a handful of reckless people chose to do it as the career prospects were searching for ore deposits or other exploratory work in the jungle of the Dutch East Indies. Many engineers did not survive to tell the tale.

One of those reckless people was Adriaan Stoop. Around 1880, when looking for water in East Java, he came across oil on several occasions. In 1887 Stoop founded the Dordtsche Petroleummaatschappij, three years before Koninklijke Olie. In 1911, the two companies merged.

Anyone who has seen the film There Will Be Blood knows that oil extraction in those pioneering years was a question of luck and ruthlessness. This was also reflected in the company’s history, which Shell documented in 2007.

The board of the Dordtse Petroleummaatschappij in 1896. The company was founded by Adriaan Stoop (right on photo) and merged with Koninklijke Olie in 1911. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The same study also showed that the Dutch oil company was one of the first to realise that technology was crucial for long-term success. Delft engineers played a key role in this vision and have always held leading positions in the company. In a way, you could say that ‘Delft’ left a bigger mark on Shell than the other way around.

Shell’s influence on education and research in Delft, on the other hand, only really started after the Second World War. In order to build up industry in the post-war period, two additional technical colleges were created to provide the business community with knowledge and engineers. Delft retained a monopoly on mining studies and there was only one large Dutch company that took on graduates, especially when the mines in Limburg had been exhausted.

Career path

Formal agreements weren’t even required to enter into partnerships. If you studied mining and oil extraction in Delft, you almost certainly went on to work at Koninklijke Olie. Later in your career, you might have returned to Delft to train new engineers or to do research that was just a little more fundamental than at Shell’s R&D labs, a few kilometres away in Rijswijk. Delft graduates in chemical technology, process technology and technical physics also had a similar career path.

A well-known example is Guus Berkhout, who obtained his PhD in signal processing in 1970, worked for Shell for several years and eventually returned to the university. As a professor of acoustics, he successfully acquired funding from Shell in the 1980s and 1990s to investigate whether sound waves could be used to detect oil fields. Before that, he also founded the Delphi Consortium, an alliance of oil companies that supported his research. Berkhout has now retired, but Delphi still finances more than 20 PhD students and postdocs.

If you studied mining and oil extraction in Delft, you almost certainly went on to work at Koninklijke Olie

No longer a given

Since the year 2000, this relationship has changed. Shell now also has research centres in Houston and Bangalore. It recruits internationally. A degree from Delft no longer automatically leads to a job at a Dutch company. In fact, Shell is falling on the list of favourite companies to work for, mainly because of its poor sustainability reputation.

When it is no longer a given that two parties will choose each other, commitments are all the more remarkable. In 2011, TU Delft and Shell formally declared each other to be ‘preferred partners’. The agreement meant that for five years, Shell invested four million euros a year in the university – for research in geophysics, process technology, fluid dynamics and oil extraction. Of course, the fact that this formal agreement has come to an end does not mean that this relationship has ended. For example, a former beneficiary, Hans Geerlings, is still a professor at Delft one day a week and a researcher at Shell on the other four days. His work focuses on carbon-neutral fuels, such as hydrogen.

A shift towards sustainability followed in the spring of 2019, with an agreement to work on technologies to reduce emissions in the petrochemical industry. Although a lot of oil research is still being done, including through the Delphi Consortium, the tide is turning in Delft. In September, the university decided to discontinue its Master’s programme in petroleum engineering.