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Meet the expert: László Domokos, Senior Researcher and team leader in Catalysts and Manufacturing Solutions
A question that preoccupies László is: ‘how do you do good research?’ It’s a very important question because, in his view, efficiency rounds can start to compromise research. For László, research is comparable to composing music, in that it “is not about the performance but about the composition itself.”
As a senior researcher and team leader in Projects and Technology Catalysts and Manufacturing Solutions at the Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam, László is always thinking about the ways to improve and optimise his team’s research. Performing good research is a point that increasingly concerns him, as he sees research coming under more pressure due to the efficiency rounds at Shell.
“The company’s focus is on whether the research can be applied. Research is always linked to a commercial benefit for Shell or a customer,” he says. “That’s fine, but really major breakthroughs do not come from applied research. They happen because someone was mad enough to try something. That type of researcher is a dying breed.”
He gives an example of how this process works in practice: “in Operations it is all about efficiency. Researchers who have spent time in Operations also want R&D to be as well oiled,” he says. “This means that ‘idle time’ – time which is not immediately useful for research – is hammered out.”
In his view, the focus on reducing this lost time is not good for the research environment. He likes to compare it with musical composition. “In Operations it is about how you play the music. But in Research the focus is on how the music should be written.”
Being able to do research that matters was one of the reasons why László joined Shell in 2000. At the time, Shell were not taking on any more researchers, but a first class PhD from the University of Twente and a burning ambition quickly convinced the recruiters to take him on. For László Shell was – and is – the place to do catalysis research.
“If you are serious about developing catalysts which will earn millions of dollars, you need to be here,” he says. “Right from my first project, I understood that we are not here for the fun of it, but that we have to solve real problems involving huge sums of money.”
Being aware of how much money is involved in a project is crucially important, he says, because it allows you the chance to measure its value. “How often is success not measure on the basis of value created?” he asks. Creating value is also one of the reasons he warmly congratulates colleagues when the department is awarded a patent. “It provides independent confirmation that you have discovered something,” he says.
László came to chemistry after a childhood spent playing music. After being selected by a teacher at his school to play double bass for his orchestra, a promising musical career beckoned László at a young age. “At the age of nine I became one of the youngest bass players in Europe,” he says. He soon discovered that his heart lay elsewhere, however, and decided to end his music studies.
“I said no, I don’t want to do that. I want to study chemistry,” he explains. “I already realised that you could earn more with chemistry than with music. I also had my doubts about whether I was really good enough for an international music career. With chemistry I knew it was something that I could excel in internationally.”
First taste of chemistry
His first taste of chemistry also began at an early age, when he was took an interest in his after-school playgroup leader‘s periodic table. He says he started to learn it by heart, despite not knowing what it was that he was learning. “At the age of 11 I could compare chemicals. When I was 12 I started reading all the books in the library on chemistry and physics. At school I was constantly pestering my chemistry teacher with questions,” he admits.
The decision to study chemistry was what led László to the Netherlands and, ultimately, to Shell. At university in Hungary he focused on catalysis, a field he knew was being developed extensively in the Netherlands. It was a doctoral candidate position at the University of Twente in Enschede which eventually brought him to the Netherlands in 1996, and it was there that he was recruited by Shell.
It surprises him that in an innovative company like Shell, people are not more interested in how to conduct research. “I’m not easily satisfied,” he admits. “A question I don’t hear asked often enough is: ‘could it be better?’” It is a point that László and his team want to stress. “It is not only a pity, but also counterproductive.
Despite all the efficiency rounds, the waiting time for our analysis has not improved in recent years,” he says. “I think it is high time that we in Research take a long hard look at how we can improve the entire research process. And that is not time ‘lost’.”