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“Working on sustainable chemistry is best done in collaboration with industry”

Sija van den Beukel,
3 maart 2023 - 10:56

Since the UvA announced it will not start any new collaborations with Shell or similar companies for the time being, one opinion article after another from scientists has appeared. Is Shell really necessary for UvA research on energy transition?

“We need to get rid of the image that ‘unworldly scientists’ are influenced by Shell,” argues Professor of Catalysis Joost Reek (Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS)). “I don’t necessarily need the money from companies to run a research group,” he says. “And a little more confidence in scientists that they are making good moral choices; I miss that, too.”

Foto: Mina Eternad
Joost Reek

Among other things, Reek works on catalysts for producing hydrogen. It is essential for scaling up hydrogen production to do so in conjunction with companies such as Shell, he says. His demonstration set-up in the lab produces 0.10 grams of hydrogen per day. Shell is currently building the largest electrolyzer in Europe on the Second Maasvlakte in Rotterdam, which should produce 60,000 kilograms of hydrogen per day by 2025. And that’s still less than one percent of the Netherlands’ total daily energy needs.


With the expertise in catalysts at the UvA, it may be possible to produce hydrogen more efficiently. “If we can increase hydrogen production here to 0.12 grams, a 20 percent efficiency improvement, then the campaign can really get going. But then we’re still not making 60,000 kg a day.” By this Reek means to say that it takes companies like Shell to scale up. “If we want to develop this ourselves, we are 15 years away. Shell has the expertise and the capital, and has already taken intermediate steps.”


A plan

Reek speaks for the entire sustainable chemistry research group, a UvA spearhead which some 20 tenured scientists are working on. “If you are working on sustainable chemistry, you have to take the application into account. And the best way to do that is in collaboration with industry.”

“Come up with an alternative. If you don’t want this, then how? I’d like to see a realistic plan.”
How much money is Shell investing in research at universities?

The total amount Shell is investing in Dutch universities is €6.5 million (in 2022). Most of this goes to the technical universities in the Netherlands, and only a small part goes to the UvA. Collaborative projects between the UvA and the fossil industry amount to less than a tenth of one percent of the annual budget, the UvA informs de Volkskrant.

So the UvA’s decision not to start new collaboration with the fossil industry for the time being was not well received, as evidenced by the open letter in which 30 scientists advocated collaboration with large companies such as Shell. Reek: “Come up with an alternative. If you don’t want this, then what? I’d like to see a realistic plan.”


“There are no easy options here,” responds Fabian Dablander, a researcher in psychological methods at FMG and a member of the action group Scientist Rebellion. “But what is clear is that if we continue to see the fossil fuel industry as a reliable partner, we will not make the energy transition in time.”

Fabian Dablander

There is plenty of evidence showing that Shell – which funds misinformation, lobbies against climate policy, expands oil and gas production, and is regularly sued around the world for damage to the ecosystem and human rights abuses – is not interested in the energy transition. We are joining more than 800 academics from all disciplines to urge universities to cut ties with this industry.


What scholars at the UvA disagree on now, according to Dablander, is whether radical action is needed to save the climate or whether we will continue to, in his words, “muddle through.” “The ICCP reports are very clear that radical action is needed. We need to move into crisis mode. That means, among other things, stopping subsidizing fossil fuels and taxing the fossil industry’s huge profits. Those savings could then be spent on rolling out renewable energy on a massive scale and funding research with parties interested in the energy transition. We should no longer be fooled into procrastinating by fossil fuel companies. Universities should take the lead.”


“Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that climate activists are sounding the alarm,” Reek says. “But then you have to do a very sharp analysis to make the right decisions. Otherwise, you’re not helping the climate.”

“We should no longer be fooled into procrastinating by fossil fuel companies. Universities should take the lead”
Current collaborations between the UvA and Shell

The UvA is involved in four NWO-funded projects in which Shell is one of the collaboration partners.

Project: Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC), a consortium of universities and companies, TU/e, UU and RUG are the lead partners.

Goal: To make chemistry more sustainable

Who: Joost Reek, Bas de Bruin, Peter Bolhuis, and several Ph.D. students


Project: AquaConnect, a consortium of universities and companies, led by WUR

Aim: To conduct research into the purification of brackish water and wastewater

Who: Annemarie van Wezel, Professor of Environmental Ecology


Project: Propelling Analysts by Removing Analytical-, Data-, Instrument-, and Sample-related Encumbrances (PARADISE)

Aim: To develop measurement equipment and software for automated analysis of small quantities of complex molecules for medical applications, energy carriers, and the forensic investigation of explosives.

Who: Professor of forensic chemistry Arian van Asten (initiator), Ron Peters, Peter Schoenmakers, Bob Pirok


Project:A radical approach to methane activation and functionalization

Aim: To discover fundamental new ways to convert greenhouse gas methane (or biogas) into high-value products.

Who: Chris Slootweg, associate professor of physical organic chemistry and PhD students

Grey area

“The discussion is very black and white: to cooperate or not to cooperate with Shell,” observes Peter van der Donk, external collaborator of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science (FNWI) and signatory of the aforementioned open letter. “But it’s a very grey area. Where does the fossil industry begin and end?”


Van der Donk is working on a list of all collaborative projects between the UvA and the fossil industry at the request of the activists. “We are now seeing if we can map everything, including graduates and internships.” Depending on the definition of “collaboration with the fossil industry,” compiling that list could take a long time. “It also involves questions like, ‘do you count fossil use as well’? In addition, Shell is investing in all sorts of things. And what do we do with BP, NAM, the farmers, and Tata Steel? Last Monday we discussed Albert Heijn because of so-called usurious profits.”


In addition, according to Van der Donk, measures have been taken to ensure academic integrity. Van der Donk says: “All kinds of conditions are imposed on projects on which we collaborate with private parties. For example, agreements stipulate that the results must be published and inventions may not disappear into a drawer.”


Star dome

How does Peter van Tienderen, dean of FNWI, deal with the divergent views at the faculty? “It’s good that the discussion is being held. But you have to realize that if a general ban is declared on something, that has direct consequences for a number of people. You are denying a researcher the ability to do research or a taking away a chance for a student to do an internship. It’s a dilemma that we need to have a conversation about and an answer to soon.

“We can go look at stars in the star dome at the science faculty, but ultimately that won’t solve the climate problem”
Foto: Dirk Gillissen
Peter van Tienderen

According to van Tienderen, the discussion is bigger than the current collaborations going on with Shell, “which I fully support, by the way.” “Declaring a moratorium is a political statement. I can understand that emotion. The only question is, who ultimately decides? I think it’s fine if UvA employees participate in actions against the fossil industry. But that doesn’t mean others can’t collaborate based on their expertise on smarter ways to accelerate the energy transition. We can go stargazing in the star dome at the science faculty – (and we’re happy to do so) but in the end that won’t solve the climate problem. In today’s society, you have to make compromises.”


Yet Van Tienderen also sees similarities in the discussion. “The motivation to come up with solutions is present in everyone. Ultimately it is a question of whether you have confidence that Shell will use the results to accelerate the transition. Differences of opinion, I expect, will continue.”


Reek says he plans to start a project soon with economists and psychologists to investigate how realistic it is to develop and deploy technologies on a large scale without large parties like Shell. Reek says: “We beta scientists think we know that that is not possible. Now we are going to quantify that with economists to see if we can substantiate it.”