Materials Research Activities

Whittingham 1984-1988

Whittingham at Schlumberger, 1984-1988: oil and batteries

The connection between oil and batteries was suggested by Whittingham himself (cf. interview).

From 1982 to 1987, Whittingham's publications dried up. This hiatus roughly coincides with his period at Schlumberger. This company specialized in analytical tools for the analysis of geological structures with a view to oil exploration. Following the first oil shock of 1973, oil wildcatting had accelerated drastically. In the wake of the second oil shock of 1980, a particularly expensive exploratory drilling in the Arctic Sea just north of Alaska sent shock waves through the oil industry. The drill yielded nothing at all, despite the fact that the geological structures had pointed strongly to the presence of oil. The resultant consensus was that the area had once upon a time contained oil, and that it must have subsequently flowed away. This prompted Schlumberger into hiring chemical expertise in addition to their more physicalist base of geophysical signalling and data analysis. And since the seepage of oil in clay actually takes place by intercalation, Whittingham's expertise was apposite.

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In contrast with his job at Exxon, at Schlumberger Whittingham was employed more as a manager. And after a few years, he was even shifted into managing a group that did not work on topics related to his chemical expertise. Whittingham was heading in the direction away from academic research, when the vagaries of the oil market once again changed the research environment and the job market. By the late 1980s, non-OPEC producers had proliferated (Alaska, Britain, Mexico) and OPEC was fragmented, proving incapable of concerted production restraints. The price of oil dropped and with it the funding for energy research disappeared too. Another contributory factor accelerated the development in the very same direction: MBAs (masters in business administration) began to have an impact upon corporate investment. This led to increasing short-termism with a view to improving the stock price and investor's returns. Long-term research with no clear marketable goal lost out within this new perspective. Many battery researchers in the private sector found that their projects disappeared like dew in the morning sun. Schlumberger also cut its research drastically, and Whittingham returned to a university environment, having to live with much reduced funding levels.

This page was written and last updated on 16-Feb-2001 by Arne Hessenbruch.