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The proudest moment of Wolfgang Warnecke’s career came in a ceremony at Vienna’s Technical University, when he jointly received one of the car industry’s top honours: the 2005 Professor Ferdinand Porsche Prize for innovation in automotive engineering.

With Wolfgang Steiger of Volkswagen, he had advanced the use of cleaner-burning fuels that could help reduce dependence on oil such as GTL fuel, a diesel made from natural gas.

“This was the first time that the energy and automotive industries had worked so closely together on the same strategy,” said Steiger.

An early start

Warnecke in a car

Warnecke’s love of cars and engines began early. At the age of eight he started working at his uncle’s service station near Hannover, Germany, learning to repair cars. He continued working there part-time until his mid-twenties. As a young man he raced cars at weekends.

He joined Shell in 1987 after gaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Hannover University in Germany and a PhD in automotive engineering in Hamburg. In his spare time as a student, he ran a small engineering workshop and consultancy for high-performance and racing engines.

Today he is Shell Chief Scientist for Mobility still a fanatical car enthusiast and motorcyclist.

“He has managed to combine a private obsession with a job he loves,” says Joerg Debus, a long-standing colleague and friend.

Meeting challenges

Warnecke, based at Hamburg, has spent more than 20 years leading the development of Shell fuels and lubricants.

During his career, the number of cars and trucks on the roads has surged to a billion, and keeps rising. Concerns have grown over smog-causing exhaust emissions and the carbon dioxide (CO2) that cars and trucks pump out, with just under a quarter of the world’s energy-related CO2 coming from road transport. And environmental regulations on fuels continue to tighten.

Warnecke spearheads Shell’s response to these challenges. This includes developing ever-more efficient fuels and lubricants, investing in low-carbon biofuels and helping customers to drive more economically through online tips and training. He believes that working with others is essential. In the 1990s, he was instrumental in forging partnerships between Shell and manufacturers like VW, Audi and Ducati. “I’m not an innovator who sits in a lab and develops an idea on his own,” he says. “We have to work in partnership. None of us can do it alone.”

Working together

In support of his approach, he can point to a series of new fuels developed by Shell with partners under his leadership. In the late 1990s, Shell Optimax, the company’s first premium fuel, was the result of an early collaboration with VW, which wanted a more advanced fuel for a new petrol engine than was available at the time. Shell Optimax was low in sulphur to meet regulations, but high in octane to boost power.

Shell V-Power petrol followed, with special detergents that increase power by keeping engine parts dirt-free and reducing energy loss. V-Power grew out of Shell’s partnership with the Ferrari Formula 1 team. “We can learn a great deal very quickly about the way a fuel or lubricant performs in intense conditions, and introduce this knowledge into products for the ordinary motorist,” says Warnecke.

With Audi, Warnecke and his team developed a special race blend of Shell V-Power Diesel and GTL fuel. It powered an Audi R10 TD1 to the first victory by a diesel car at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in 2006, a victory repeated in the two following years.

This partnership helped improve Shell’s ability to achieve maximum power from GTL fuel, now produced at Shell’s Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar for blending in low concentrations with ordinary diesel.

Making future mobility sustainable

Warnecke is a mixture of romantic and hard-nosed scientist. He looks back fondly to the great days of motoring when the car meant adventure and spirit and environmental concerns were barely thought of. At home he keeps a collection of classic cars, including one of the first he owned, a 1969 Lotus 7.

But he also looks ahead to a future where the roads will be more congested, where fuel supplies will have to stretch further and come from a wider range of sources to power a greater variety of vehicles.

In both public and private transport, he says, there will be more biofuels, more electric cars, more natural gas-powered vehicles, even more hydrogen-fuelled transport. Local needs and availability will dictate local solutions.

He believes his best contribution towards a more sustainable future for mobility is as an innovator developing more efficient and cleaner-burning transport fuels. But they must also have the potential to be produced commercially and marketed successfully. 

“That’s a true innovation,” he says. “I’m not satisfied with a bright new idea if it can’t be produced at scale and then sold to benefit our customers.”

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