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GeoLegends: Dietrich Welte (Part 1)


Dietrich Welte: Geologist and Chemist, Leader in Organic Geochemistry, and Father of Modern Petroleum System and Basin Modeling, Part 1

Full Transcript

Well, I was born in Wurzburg in Bavaria in 1935, and the first things I remember is that my parents moved from our Bavarian home to Highland [ph], which is a town which was later on in the Eastern Communistic Zone of Germany.

And during the end of the war, my father was killed. He was a university professor.

And, by the way, he was a geoscientist. And then our mother returned quickly back to Bavaria.

And this was our luck because otherwise we would have been in the Eastern Communistic part later of what was German Communistic Republic later on.

And then the war came to an end and our hometown was heavily bombed, and we left and went to live with my grandparents.

And tragically, our mother died very early, right after the war.

And from then on I was in school and I was always interested in science.

My parents had talked about it. I remember certain things and right automatically after I got my degree, I entered university and I think I said already, I didn’t know, should I study chemistry or geology.

And then we had a planned visit to the chemical industry, which was just emerging after the war in Frankfurt.

And I don’t know whether I should say that. I was shocked by these chemists in dirty, little white coats working in stinky laboratories.

And I decided that’s not my future. And I turned toward geology. And then I went to Gottingen, changed universities.

And there I really got in contact with what I was interested in, the combination of geology and chemistry.

And coming back to Wurzburg again, I won a Fulbright Scholarship, and this was the start of a new life, really.

And in that respect, I am very grateful to the Fulbright Program in the U.S. because I think you cannot imagine what it is to come from, for instance, a university where half of the buildings are still ruins.

And you come to an intact environment, and you can not only look or hear about analytical instruments, you can work with it.

And it’s a completely different kind of learning. And this was the start of my love with geochemistry.

And it was topped by an invitation from the Carnegie Institute geophysical laboratory by Professor Ableton [ph].

He was an eminent scientist, and I told him at the time, “I do not know enough organic chemistry.” Then he looked at me and he said, “You will manage. You are intelligent enough. Just do it.”

And this really was the start for my interest in geochemistry. And another event, I think which is worth telling, is there was a gentleman and his name was Frank Ristola [ph]. He was working with a mass spectrometer.

I had heard about mass spectrometers, but I didn’t know what it was.

It was an organic mass spectrometer, and he allowed me to experiment with it and with extracts from rocks, which were original organic material.

And then I purified the extract and got what you call the saturated hydrocarbons out of it.

And I did some urea adduction, which is a chemical technique to isolate the normal paraffins.

And the longer it happened, we found the difference between the rocks that had limnic or terrestrial background versus marine organic material.

The one had the even predominance, and the other one, I’m sorry an odd predominance, and the others didn’t.

And that was a little paper which I published and that caught the attention of Shell. And Shell offered me a job.

Interviewer: So you said you have a Fulbright Scholarship. Where did you study then when you came here?

The Fulbright Scholarship was in Penn State, Pennsylvania State University.

Interviewer: And did you do a masters or PhD when you ---?

I had a masters degree in Germany. And I worked as a graduate assistant in Penn State.

And my PhD work was done later in Germany again. But because it was a strange thing, I got interested in this organic geochemistry type, and the German University System didn’t recognize that.

And I was, really, I was not allowed to cross over the borders of different disciplines.

And then I did inorganic geochemistry. By the way, I worked on uranium and the deposition of uranium in granite bathering.

It is in oxidized form, six valence uranium. And once these fluids flow into organic debris or in brown coals, then the uranium gets reduced, and then it’s precipitated as uranium UO2, uranium oxide.

Interviewer: Okay. So you said you were offered a job by Shell. Did you go to [inaudible] at that point or ---?

The job offer came from the [inaudible], and they and started a research lab in [inaudible] at the time.

And I was working in the [inaudible] research lab, but Shell always had a great way of preparing their new employees for the world of the petroleum, and they sent me for a quarter of a year to their big chemical laboratory, basic research in Amsterdam.

And I had a little room, which was very close to the famous Mint Tower in Amsterdam, which is where they made their coins.

And every morning I took my bike and went to the Central Station.

I took a boat and took a bus going over to the laboratory, which was on a little island behind the railroad station.

And after that quarter of a year, I was then in their research lab and started to do geochemical research work for Shell.

And this really was another eye opener, especially when I was offered my own little project into the research for source rocks in the Niger Delta.

And I was sent to Nigeria, in the [inaudible] of Nigeria, a very strange world for me at that time.

And I collected drill core samples and I collected samples in the field further north, and we did analysis of the potential source rocks for the Niger Delta oil.

Interviewer: What years would this have been?

This was in the year 1962 and 1961.

Interviewer: So were you mostly collecting then continental source rocks at this point? Were you doing [inaudible]?

We had looked from drill cores into the marine shales mainly.

Interviewer: So the Ecada [ph] or something like that?

It was the Ecada and the so-called Deep Shales [ph]. But the Ecada source rock was part of that.

And there was a great deal of very interesting new considerations about the tectonics.

The scroll faults at the time as migration pass into the traps on top of these coal faults.

It really was a very, very good environment and very good science.

And I think this is quite often, at least in German universities, the mistake that has been made, how excellent the science was in the oil companies.

It really was very much advanced as compared to many university programs.

Interviewer: That’s right. After the Niger, did you do any more work with Shell?

I was offered to come back to the University of Wurzburg and to establish a geochemical laboratory and to get what is called “Habilitation.”

In Germany, if you want to become a professor at that time, you needed something like a second PhD, and this is called “Habilitation” or habilitation.

And my former professor had offered me a “Habilitation,” and I should establish at the same time a geochemical laboratory.

This is what I did. I got some money and, strange enough, the lab was in the cellar because there was not enough room in the normal building levels, and at wintertime when the Main River had high water levels, I had to put in a wooden, let’s say, floor in order to avoid standing in the water.

And it’s a true story. I worked part of the time in this lab with water underneath a wooden board not to get wet feet.

And at that time, and this may be one of the slides I have shown, and at that time I started to do work on the messel shale, which is an organic-rich shale tertiary material, which is very immature.

And I used that to artificially mature these organic materials with a high temperature bond program.

I had learned that from the petrographers and petrological people at the geophysical lab in Washington [ph], and I thought I’d apply that to the study of the maturation of source rocks.

And I think this became a classic paper because you could show that the immature organic material would become mature once you heat it long enough and mildly, and then you could show what was later on recognized as the oil generation sequence of oils with different maturity.

Messel shale. It’s a famous landmark for even the United Nations because there are fantastic fossils in it.

I think it’s Miocene.

And by the way, a little bit further west in the Rhine Graben Valley, the same shale is subsided in the Rhine Graben and is matured as a source.

Interviewer: Where did you go from there then? Did you, obviously this must have evolved into your general kind of work in petrology, geochemistry, resource source rock identification.

That’s correct. This was the period when I finally, with my knowledge from Shell and all the thinking from Shell, and this new result by heating up pyrolysis of immature shales.

And at the same time I wrote this paper which won me the President’s Award of the AAPG.

And the thing that was the surprise for me, In Germany nobody paid attention to that paper.

It was written in German and Bob King [ph] from, I have forgotten the name of the oil company, I think Overseas Petroleum Company or something like that.

Bob King, who was able to read German, read that paper, translated it into English, and it was published in the APG, and that one made the President’s Award.

And then I think you may know that better than I do, I was invited to come over to the states.

I had invitation from a number of oil companies after I had received the award.

Interviewer: What year was that?

I think it was in 1965.

Interviewer: Okay.

And again, I really had, and I don’t say that because I’m here, I had great respect for the quality and the good work that was done in the oil company laboratories.

I visited them, practically all, Gulf, Chevron, Marathon, Exxon. And the quality of work and the possibilities were mind boggling really.

And then some people said it was the good margaritas in California that got me to Chevron.

One reason that we did not go to Houston was that my wife and I decided the humidity and the hot climate in Houston would not be as nice as out West in California.

Interviewer: So where did you work with Chevron? Where did you end up working?

I worked in La Habra. I worked in La Habra.

We had a fantastic President, I think. A lot of people should give credit to him, Ellen Riley [ph]. A fantastic person. A very nice person.

And at one time he told me, “Dietrich, if you have a good idea, you are allowed to publish.

Chevron does not believe having too many secrets. If it is not diminishing our business, it is for science that be publish, and you should do that.”

And I kept this in mind and did a number of things which were not really my task inside Chevron.

They were interested in looking into the quality and number of source rocks during Earth history.

And I surveyed literature, a lot of literature. And I found papers from Russian scientists.

One of them I recall was Ronoff [ph]. He had done thousands of analyses and looked at the frequency of good source rocks during Earth history.

And we made a lot of documents out of that.

And then all of a sudden I got the idea, “Gee – all this organic material must come from photosynthesis.

There should be a relationship between photosynthesis and [inaudible] organic material.”

And I started to make balance calculations. Again, with the volume of these rocks and where they were and what is needed to understand the organic material.

Once photosynthesis takes place you generate oxygen, and the beginning of the Earth atmosphere was without oxygen.

So where did the oxygen go? Then it was very quickly obvious from others.

I didn’t do that. A lot of the sulfide is being oxidized to sulfates.

So you have to account for the oxygen, also what is in sulfates. A lot of [inaudible] and iron is converted to oxidized iron and part of the oxygen is trapped and bound to iron.

So you would add up all the former oxygen, which is now in sulfates, which is now in iron oxides, and you would add what is in the atmosphere, etc.

And I did that and related that to the organic carbon, and it turned out it matches exactly the balance calculations for C Carbon and O Oxygen O2.

And the numbers are, indeed, the correct balance of what photosynthesis had.

And I published that paper. And from that moment on I got many, many requests for the paper at that time.

There was no internet, no electronic bookkeeping. And that got me interested in the evolution of the paleoatmosphere, and Chevron let me do all that.

I think this was fantastic. But in addition to that, well, the paper was published later on in a German journal, but in addition to that I did a lot of work of oil source rock correlation for Chevron down in the South and we started to look into the source rock situation in Alaska, the different kind of source rocks in Alaska.

And at that time the big [inaudible] disaster happened.

They drilled this huge structure and Chevron pulled out because we didn’t have a good feeling for this situation.

At Maklock in Alaska was a mistake. We know now why with modeling- at that time we didn’t know why.

But we thought there is too much breaching in the cap rocks, which was probably the case.

So my Chevron time is very important to me, and a lot of work I did was also with Isotopes.

And one of my bosses there was Sol Silverman, and he became really one of my scientific friends.

And Sol let me do what I wanted to do. And I got the idea is that “Gee – the carbon isotopes should mirror somehow there synthetic pathway of organic molecules.”

So the idea is organic synthesis picks more C12 than it picks C13.

And then, depending on the metabolism of the organisms, you may find a difference for different molecules.

And I asked Sol whether I would be allowed to make an analysis of single hydrocarbons, and he said, “If you find out how to do that, you can do it.” And then I got the idea.

I injected hydrocarbons, which were chemically separated, the normal paraffins or the the [inaudible] as we call them.

We trapped them with urea adduction or with molecular sieves.

And then I would take a [inaudible]graph and have the split outlet one to monitor what kind of peak it is, and the other one just a bypass.

And then I would collect partly at night because it took hundreds of runs with molecular sieves, particular peaks.

And then we combusted each different peak we had collected from twenty or thirty runs a few milligrams and combusted that in the furnace and put it in a spectrometer.

And this was the first, It really was the first proof and analysis of individual molecules with respect to their carbon isotopes.

And I know that this is now, well, people like Bob Hayes [ph] in Bloomington [ph] at the time, it’s a well-developed technology now with all the modern, analytical techniques. And you do that routinely.

At the time it was a very, very tedious task.

So this is another, so to speak, grand gesture Chevron had done to let me really do what I was interested in.

And I may want to add another name that was a physicist or geophysicist, and his name was Del Seevers [ph].

And he got me the idea, I was interested in finding out about migration pathways.

If you have tiny pores, how can you make sure that you understand migration?

And Del Seevers had told me, “If there is water firmly absorbed on mineral surfaces, then in the pulse magnetic field they do not wiggle anymore if you shut off the magnetic field.”

So in other words, if you have a pulse magnetic field, then those molecules which are not firmly absorbed would wiggle and then you can detect them in your monitoring system.

And the ones that are firmly absorbed do not wiggle anymore.

And that means these firmly absorbed water molecules block the pathway.

So the permeability, And this was the beginning of the nuclear magnetic resonance logging tool.

And with this idea in mind then, we started to think about migration and pore spaces and how tiny they are with respect to the molecular size what you want to move through.

So what I can say is, again, Chevron was very generous in letting a scientist do what he thought was good.

Interviewer: So you said you were at Chevron until 1970. So did you return to Germany at that point?

Well, these papers which I mentioned, they’re read in Germany.

I did also something which was in the Handbook of Geochemistry where I had a pretty good background in coal chemistry from my Shell time and my interest.

And looking at kerogens and what we in between had known would be source of [inaudible] materials, I said it would be a good idea to plot them on the standard diagrams coal chemists would use.

And this [inaudible] so called van Krevelen diagrams, the OCHC diagrams.

And I simply took source rock samples of different age and in a way different maturity and plotted them along with the normal coal macerals like vitrinite, exinite, etc., and they fall in a nice line with relatively rich hydrogen content.

And that was published in this Handbook of Geochemistry, and that interested people in Germany, and they offered me a professorship in Gottingen.

And then I asked, because I thought my father was a professor and maybe I should take a chance and try to go back to Germany.

And Chevron was, again, very generous. They said, “You can leave and we’ll keep you a position open, which may be higher than what you have now, for another three years. And you can come back anytime you want within these three years.”

And I was about ready to do that because I was dissatisfied in Guttingen, not with the university, but with, They expected me to do very basic research in terms of not applied research, work with the origin of life and things like that.

And I always wanted to know what my research is good for, and I was strongly oriented to work application of research.

And before I was ready to go back to Chevron, I got an offer from the university in Aachen, which is a technical university.

And I thought, “This may be the possibility to do applied research with the oil and coal industry.”

But this was the case, and, again, something strange happened.

The oil crisis, the first oil crisis arrived, and I had published, together with my friend Bernard Tissot, the textbook Petroleum Formation and Occurrence.

And when the oil crisis hit, some government people remembered that there was a guy who had written a book about it.

And there was an energy meeting. At the time Bonn was the political capital of West Germany, and I was invited to a political hearing on energy.

And I presented a talk and then as a consequence I was offered to build up a petroleum research place at one of our biggest national laboratories in Juelich.

And I took that chance, but I wanted to have that research institute at the university because I knew already at that time that political influence is not good for research in all cases, and I wanted to have it in a university system, which is not within the reach of politicians. But the university wasn’t interested.

And then I took the money I was offered, not for me personally, money to do research, and put it into the National Laboratory in Juelich, which at the time was, I believe, the largest German research center with about 5,000 people and 1,000 scientists.

And it was my job to develop and establish classical energy oil gas research at this center.

And you can see how things change.

About, this was in 1980s, and in 1990s there was no more interest in oil and oil research because it was bad.

It was bad for the climate. It was bad for energy policy. And so you see my original fears about political influence were justified and I had that so many times.

And I firmly believe it is important to listen to the political bill and especially in democratic systems.

That is fine. But science should stay clean. Science is science.

They can make their offers, but they should be objective.

And then the politicians should decide what they do with the objective results.

And scientists should not be too political in their sayings and in their dealings because science is science and should remain objective.

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Internationally known geologist and chemist – a leader in organic geochemistry – for Royal Dutch Shell and, later, California’s Chevron Lab. He is known as the Father of Modern Petroleum System and Basin Modeling. (Sidney Powers medalist) Show More

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Explorer Emphasis Article

Standing ovation, please: Dietrich Welte adds the Sidney Powers Award to his long list of accolades to become one of the most honored geologists in AAPG history.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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