The future solutions factory: The Shell Discovery Hub

Learn about the team of scientists exploring the future of innovation to uncover tomorrow’s lubrication challenges

Key Takeaways

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    The Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub consists of a team dedicated to long-term innovation – exploring how customer needs will change over the next 10 years today.

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    The Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub team focuses on innovation led by five broad themes: co-engineering, digital, sustainability, product performance, and impactful demonstrations. Underpinned by a core program that includes expert capabilities in lubrication science, modelling, and evaluation of novel components.

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    Collaboration and partnerships are a vital element of how the Shell Discovery Hub delivers its innovative solutions. The team works closely with a range of businesses, academics, and universities to create new projects and publish research.

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    Despite the tension between short-term targets and long-term innovation, it’s important for Shell to have a team dedicated to anticipating future challenges and developing solutions in response. Without this, there would be no long-term options for product development – increasing the risk of disruption and making it harder to meet changing customer needs.

Sarah Matthews

Sarah Matthews, Team Lead, Lubricants Technology, Shell

With more than 15 years of industry experience, Sarah manages the geographically and technically diverse team of scientists and engineers that make up the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub team. With a doctorate from Oxford University, she’s a leading expert in lubricant technology research and development.

The challenge

It can be difficult to step away from day-to-day operations and explore what the future looks like for an organisation. But a focus on short-term results can often come at the cost of long-term innovation and success.

The solution

For some businesses, collaborating with start-ups and entrepreneurs is the way to drive their longer-term innovation. At Shell, however, the collaboration happens in-house with the Shell Discovery Hub, a dedicated team created to drive long-term innovation and develop the lubricant technologies of the future.

Going behind the scenes of the Shell Discovery Hub

Created in 2012 to focus more time and effort on innovation, the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub is a unique part of the wider Shell business. Its mission is to address challenges that require new thinking, exploring what the lubricants landscape will look like over the next decade and beyond – while meeting the needs of customers today. 

“We’re a team that’s dedicated to scouting future opportunities,” explains Sarah Matthews, the Team Lead for Lubricants Technology at Shell. “Within a 10-year time horizon, we proactively scout and share those foresights, we build fundamental knowledge and share those insights with the wider lubricants community, to help deliver innovative solutions for the future.”

Alongside providing these insights, the team plays a key role in enhancing Shell’s technology leadership by publishing research papers, attending significant conferences or events, and showcasing their innovations to external audiences.

“We also work closely with some of our key customers to develop our shared understanding of future challenges,” says Matthews. “Together, we create technical solutions that not only provide the basis for new products and services but also really strengthen our relationships with our partners.”

For Matthews, having a team dedicated to long-term lubricants innovation is essential. “I think we need a team that has the space to think, reflect and really take time to define the research questions that we want to answer,” she says. “And from that, we can explore the output that we want to deliver to our product and service development teams. It’s vital we have a full pipeline of mid- to long-term options ready for them to work with.”

Helping to build the business case for that approach is the fact that companies with a long-term mindset typically see 47% more growth than those focused on the short term.1 But that doesn’t necessarily reduce the tension between short-term targets and long-term success.

“It does require a bit of discipline to retain that focus when we know that the business has more immediate needs,” says Matthews. “But without the Shell Discovery Hub, we don't have a funnel of options for future product development. It's important that we’re looking ahead, anticipating the problems and opportunities we may face – and creating the innovative solutions that meet our customers’ long-term needs.”

Exploring the lubricant technology of tomorrow

As Matthews highlights, the Shell Discovery Hub’s focus goes beyond the next development cycle for products and services. “The aim is to deliver innovative new solutions that our development teams can use to create the lubricants and services of tomorrow,” she explains.

Laying the foundations for product and service development isn’t the only way the team contributes to the wider lubricants business. They also create new experimental methods and mathematical modelling techniques to support product claims and troubleshoot issues encountered in the field.

“From energy efficiency and electrification to digital and co-engineering, our innovation themes make sure we balance long-term projects with the ability to meet short-term goals.”

Sarah Matthews, Team Lead, Lubricants Technology, Shell

“For us, it's really about delivering value to our product and service development teams,” Matthews continues. “That can be anything, from passenger car engine oils to thermal fluids for battery cooling and transmission to sensor technology for effective oil condition monitoring. We work across the entire lubricants portfolio.”

To achieve this, the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub builds its projects around a set of innovation led themes, including:

  • Co-engineering
  • Digital
  • Sustainability
  • Product Performance
  • Impactful Demonstrations

These broad areas make sure that each project links back to the customer need – even if the customers don’t yet know they have those needs.

“So, for example, we’ll explore elements like the control of friction and wear, extending oil life and enhancing energy efficiency,” says Matthews. “And key insights that have come from this process include a better understanding of fluid requirements in both electric vehicles (EVs) and engines that run on alternative fuels.”

Over time, the innovation themes have evolved alongside Shell’s lubricants strategy and will continue to do so.

How the Shell Discovery Hub delivers for development teams

It’s important to emphasise the customer impact of the work that the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub team does. Despite their long-term view of lubrication, their projects aren’t just a future-gazing exercise. Every innovation is designed to eventually deliver real-world value to Shell customers.

An example of this is the co-engineering collaborations between the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub and key customers. Delivering innovative research programmes of mutual interest to Shell and key customers, has expanded both the teams’ technical knowledge and put Shell in a better position to meet future business requirements.

The Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub’s collaborative approach also sees the team working with three key strategic university partners: Imperial College London, MIT and Tsinghua University. 

The relationship with Imperial College London has yielded positive results and has led to the creation of more than 20 research projects and the presentation of more than 50 research papers. Embedded within the university, the Shell Lubricants Discovery Hub team works closely with several departments to solve significant technology challenges and help to deliver next-generation lubricant products.

So far, this collaboration has poured its expertise into:

  • Fully sustainable water-based lubricants
  • Optimised battery charging and cooling for EVs
  • Greases formulated from calcium (to reduce the world’s dependence on lithium for batteries)

“I'm proud of these collaborations. I think they really help us to deliver much more in the innovation space,” says Matthews. “Whether we’re thinking about fuel efficiency, oil durability or effective battery thermal management to support electrification, lubricant requirements are becoming more demanding. That’s why we work closely with our customers, partners and development teams to co-engineer solutions that overcome their biggest technical challenges.”

Where next for the team exploring the future of lubrication?

So what innovations can customers expect to see emerging in the coming years? For Matthews, decarbonisation will be a critical driver for the team as every industry works to achieve their net-zero targets.

“Our focus on sustainability is what really underpins our recently refreshed lubricant strategy,” she explains. “Whether it’s our choice of raw materials to reduce the carbon intensity of products or the exploration of new opportunities for circularity to reduce waste, this innovation theme is already a significant driving force behind our projects, and we’ll see the results of that arrive in our mid- to long-term portfolio.”

Electrification is another key area for the Shell Discovery Hub as the teams works on new performance fluids and battery cooling solutions, all designed to make it easier for businesses to make the switch to EVs.

“It's an exciting time to work on lubricants innovation. There’s plenty of opportunity in this space, especially when it comes to helping our customers deliver on their sustainability ambitions.”

Sarah Matthews, Team Lead, Lubricants Technology, Shell

Wherever the future takes the Shell Discovery Hub team, their expertise and dedication to long-term innovation means they’ll have mapped any changes coming and will be prepared with an array of solutions designed to meet the customer needs of tomorrow.


Forbes. “Short-Termism Is Hurting Companies And Costing Lives.” 2022

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