Shell Development Emeryville

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The Emeryville Research Center of Shell Development Company in Emeryville, California was the major research facility of Shell Oil Company in the United States from 1928 to 1972 [In 1972 Shell Development relocated to Houston Texas,].[1] Shell Development's Emeryville facilities were located on about 27 acres (110,000 m2), included nearly 90 buildings at its peak, and when decommissioned in 1972, employed a staff of about 1500.

Inventions, technical contributions, resources[edit]

Tricresyl phosphate, long advertised as "TCP," was developed for use as a gasoline additive at Emeryville, as were other gasoline additives. Tar sands extraction and other techniques to increase oil reserves were studied at bench scale and in pilot plants. Here Shell also pioneered de-sulfurization methods and standards for gasoline and motor oil, which were significant in reducing acid rain and other environmental effects of acidity in auto exhaust gases.

The epoxy resins were created at Shell / Emeryville. In an early dramatization of the new material, Shell Development's team recorded and pressed a musical performance on epoxy resin rather than on vinyl. The wife of a scientist, who was a classical harpsichordist, performed. Epoxy / carbon fiber and other advanced composites were also pioneered there.

Shell polymer scientists revised the scientific community's understanding of polymerization physics for styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR), a principal component of most tires. SBR provided tires for the Allies' military vehicles after natural rubber from rubber trees was made unavailable by the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia. Shell's Charles Wilcoxen later demonstrated the true kinetics of the polymerization process.

Toward the end of its operation, Shell Development fabricated and pioneered applications for a class of compounds called block copolymers, intended for medical applications such as artificial heart valves.

Shell Development had significant capital assets and technical resources, including a cyclotron, an early and long-running electron microscope facility, an elaborate radiation laboratory (which became Veedercrest Winery), and other then-advanced scientific tools.

Shell Development Emeryville made many contributions to the US space program, including development of rocket fuel compounds, and handling techniques and storage methods for these highly explosive compounds. Shell Development's labs also contributed significant support to California-based land speed recordholder Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America vehicles.

Corporate culture[edit]

The American Chemical Society's archives refer to Shell Development as one of a small number of large, pre-eminent private research facilities on the West Coast. A number of Shell scientists served as officers of ACS during the decades when the facility was in operation.

Though self-identified as a conservative employer, many Shell scientists were politically progressive, often championing causes such as the Sierra Club, no-growth economic strategies, and so on. A '60's anti-war counterculture rock band, Country Joe and the Fish, dedicated an early album to Martin Dimbat, a Shell Development scientist who contributed financially to their musical venture. Shell Development scientist Thomas Schatzky pioneered fingerprinting techniques to identify oil spills' origins.

Unionized, with a comfortable work pace, elaborate medical benefits for employees, a company-paid lifetime retirement plan, and almost-ironclad job security, Shell Development for decades provided the comforts of a socialistic work environment, within the organization of a corporate giant of capitalism.

Shell Development's senior scientific ranks included scientists who had been graduate students of Glenn Seaborg, a Berkeley scientist who pioneered techniques to create, and verify the existence of, transuranium elements. Shell Development also bore the indirect imprint of Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project. Manhattan Project alumni worked at Shell / Emeryville, and Oppenheimer himself is asserted to have been an offstage force in unionizing parts of Shell Development's workforce.

Distinguished scientists often experienced reduced professional recognition, which is associated with private-sector research, compared to scientists in academia. This is due to the competitive disadvantages the company would experience if employees could publish freely.

After parent company Shell Oil dissolved the Shell Development / Emeryville organization and decommissioned its facilities, the employee culture proved robust. For over forty years after Shell Development ceased to exist, its employees continued monthly meetings at a marina restaurant nearby. Meetings were finally suspended in 2007. A spokesperson reported, citing uninterrupted recordkeeping among the surviving employees, that somewhat less than half of the known employees from Shell Development were still alive in late 2006.

Following Shell's 1972 departure from its Emeryville campus, its facilities languished briefly, then became an early home of biotechnology pioneers Cetus and Chiron. In the 21st century, many of the buildings of the former Shell Development campus are occupied by pharmaceutical giant Novartis.


  1. ^ "Research in physics at the Emeryville Research Center of Shell Development Company, 1928-1966, 1966," by Shell Development Company. Call Number: IH190 54 pages. Owning Repository: American Institute of Physics. Center for History of Physics. Niels Bohr Library. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740, USA