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Shell outgrows Bellaire hub


Shell Oil Co. is moving its operations out of its Bellaire research hub to two other area facilities.


Houston Chronicle

July 1, 2008, 10:51PM


Shell outgrows Bellaire hub

West Houston campus to expand to replace old research center

Technology has outgrown Shell Oil Co.’s longtime Bellaire research hub where scientists made oil and natural gas production breakthroughs for decades.

So the U.S. arm of Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell is launching a $300 million renovation and expansion of another technology research campus in west Houston.

Many of the Bellaire employees will move there, bringing exploration and production, refining and chemical scientists together in modernized digs. Others will move to another west Houston location as Shell vacates the center on Bellaire Boulevard.

“Essentially every part of what we’ve done in the U.S. has really been supported scientifically by the work that was done there at the lab,” Charlie Williams, Shell’s chief scientist of well engineering and production technology, said of the Bellaire Technology Center.

But the 72-year-old facility, which opened as a geophysical processing center in 1936, can’t handle the high-tech needs of exploration and production research anymore.

Also, two-thirds of the 5-acre facility is built on leased land. That lease will expire in 2010, which added to the decision to close the operation there.

“It was originally set up with labs that look like your high school chemistry lab,” Williams said. “But a lot of the work now is done on computers, and it’s not ideal for computing. That building was never conceived for the level of computing we do.”


Expansion plans

Shell announced plans to shutter the 310,000-square-foot Bellaire facility two years ago. But more recently, the world’s third-largest oil company unveiled plans to expand its Westhollow Technology Center in west Houston. 

Westhollow’s 33-year-old campus with 43 buildings at Highway 6 and the Westpark Tollway will be renovated, and construction on buildings to accommodate the consolidation will start next year, Shell said. The revamped facility also will get a new name: Shell Technology Center-Americas.

Over the next two years, 480 of the Bellaire facility’s employees will move to the revamped center and 170 will go to Shell’s Woodcreek technology campus just north of Interstate 10 outside Beltway 8.


Innovation hub

Westhollow, which now has 1,300 employees, houses researchers focused on chemicals and refining, while the Bellaire facility is home to exploration and production research. The recently expanded Woodcreek facility also houses exploration and production research, as well as one of Shell’s real-time operations centers that oversee floating drilling operations worldwide. 

Williams said plenty of science developed at the Bellaire facility is still used today or led to innovations used today.

The original lab is among the first buildings Shell built in the U.S. Originally home to seismic research, its walls of limestone quarried in Texas contain scallop-shell fossils — just like the company’s logo.

Over several decades, Shell scientists at the facility sought to understand how to use properties in rock to find oil and natural gas in underground formations, a science the company named “petrophysics,” Williams said.

Those studies led to equations engineers and scientists still use, he said.


Technological advances

Bellaire teams also developed use of a screen to prevent sand from falling into wells as they are drilled — a technology that proved critical to deep-water exploration. 

And the facility’s teams made use of CT scan and magnetic resonance imaging machines from the nearby Texas Medical Center to examine tubular sections of rock retrieved from wells so they could test how to retrieve more oil by injecting steam or carbon dioxide into reservoirs. Such underground injection of carbon dioxide today has garnered much interest as a method to cut or eliminate greenhouse emissions from energy operations.

“It really is historic and quite a monument for us,” Williams said of the center. “A lot of that work, started in the 1960s, has continued to evolve.”

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