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In the path to innovation

Brazilian industry develops new products for research projects

In March, five trucks will leave São Paulo heading for Chile, on a journey over the dangerous roads of the Andes mountains, carrying the upper dome of the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (Soar). The result of an agreement between Brazil and the United States, the Soar is being built in the Cerro Pachón region, an extensive almost desert area with clear, cloudless skies almost every night of the year, thus making astronomical observation easier. The dome’s importance, in addition to protecting the 4.2-meter diameter telescope, one of the largest in the world, is to provide technological development for four Brazilian companies involved in the preparation, manufacture, and testing of this equipment. The project is a good example of the State’s participation the in the purchase of the precision instruments and state-of-the-art technology required for scientific research, benefiting the development of Brazilian companies, chiefly smaller ones.

The dome is 20-meter wide and 14-meter tall and will be transported to Chile in kit forms. It was budgeted at R$ 3.5 million, managed by Equatorial Sistemas, the prime contractor (the company managing the whole project) of the Brazilian part of Soar. The choice of the company was made by the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA in the Portuguese acronym) , of the National Council for Science and Technological Development (CNPq in the Portuguese acronym), which is representing Brazil in the agreement with the United States.

Brazil is taking part in this project with investment of around US$ 14 million. Of this total, FAPESP will finance R$ 4 million. The remaining  amount is being raised by the LNA through the financing agencies associated with the foundation in Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, and Rio de Janeiro, as well as the federal agencies, the Studies and Projects Finance Company (Finep in the Portuguese acronym) and the CNPq.

In the view of the engineer César Celeste Ghizoni, director of Equatorial, the company’s participation in the Earth Observation System (EOS), program of NASA, the US space agency, was decisive  for having been chosen as the prime contractor for the Soar project. Equatorial developed the HSB – Humidity Sounder for Brazil –, a humidity sensor containing specific information on the country’s climate, which will fly on board the Acqua satellite, currently being developed and tested in the United States, for the English company Matra Marconi Space. Equatorial is also involved in the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) project, or the Sino-Brazilian terrestrial resources satellite, an outcome of the agreement signed in July 1998, between Brazil and China, to develop a remote sensoring system covering the vast territories of both countries. The CBERS-1 was launched in 1999 and the 2 is expected to go into space in October this year.

Vision Field
For the two satellites, Ghizoni  developed an instrument called the WFI – Wide Field Imager. He worked at the National Space Research Institute until 1991, specializing in the electronics and optics fields, before continuing his business career. The WFI is a camera covering an 890-km wide band, supplying images with a 260-meter resolution, enabling complete coverage of the earth to be achieved in five days.

Equatorial developed the electronic controls for the dome’s opening mechanisms and contracts out other parts from other companies for the Soar project. Of its 30 employees – among whom there  are two doctors, four master’s degree holders, and ten engineers –, seven are working on the project full-time. Ghizoni invited the Fibraforte company, also of São José dos Campos, to carry out the mechanical and manufacturing design project for the dome. “The spherical dome does away with structural work, which would be more difficult to manufacture. It is made of panels that fit each other and ensure perfect insulation”, explains Jadir Gonçalves, Fibraforte’s president, who founded the company in 1994, after leaving the Inpe, where he began his career in space in 1986.

For the manufacturing of the 50-ton steel ring that forms the base of the dome, Equatorial hired Santin, a metallurgical company from Piracicaba specializing in large-scale equipment for the sugar and alcohol and oil industries. Santin, in turn, employs Metalúrgica Atlas, of São Paulo, for tooling (defect correction) a 20-meter diameter ring forming the base of the dome. “This type of work was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the field of machine finishing ever undertaken in Brazil”, says the engineer Francisco Moraes, manager of the Soar project in Equatorial. Atlas had to reconfigure a huge vertical lathe to adapt it to the maximum capacity.

Final test
The dome was assembled and tested at Santin, which modified its installations, covering an area of 101,000 square meters, to build the support bases for the assembly. In Moraes’s opinion, Equatorial and Fibraforte, traditionally involved with the delicate structures of a satellite, had the opportunity of developing a 50-ton project. Metallurgical companies like Santin and Atlas, learned, through this gigantic, but sophisticated structure, the same careful quality criteria that apply to small structures in the space and astronomy industries. Furthermore, the companies were not motivated by the prospect of immediate profit, but rather by the technological challenge and the return in terms of institutional image. Equatorial, for example, works with a profit margin it considers low, around 15%.

In addition to Soar, another important project in the field of astronomy is the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory (see Pesquisa FAPESP 56), set up in the province of Mendoza, in Argentina, and maintained by 20 countries, including Brazil. The  Brazilian contribution was the manufacture of special resin tanks for detecting cosmic rays. The manufacturer of these detectors, 20 in number, is the São Paulo company Alpina Equipamentos Industriais. In this case, FAPESP has already funded US$ 1.6 million, over three years, of which US$ 1 million has been spent on buying equipment, and the rest on doctoral and postdoctoral grants.

Investment in the future
To achieve a degree of excellence in producing scientific equipment, the companies are diversifying their activities. They are seeking technical training and financing. This was one of the motives leading FAPESP to create the Technological Innovation in Small Companies Program (PIPE) in 1997. “It is important to encourage company development in precision instrumentation. Competence in this field is an important byproduct of scientific projects such as Soar”, states professor José Fernando Perez, FAPESP’s scientific director.

“Financing enables small companies to take a step forward. We might be anticipating a product that will be essential when competing for the next contract, both inside and outside the scientific field. This is one of the reasons that led us to look for support from the financing agencies”, states Gonçalves, of Fibraforte. The company has a project within the PIPE, and so does Equatorial (see table), to develop a software program for analyzing and optimizing structures. “Optimizing the structure is, essentially, a question of achieving the best performance with the minimum weight, an application of obvious interest to the aeronautical industry”, explains Gonçalves. The work, which uses artificial intelligence concepts, aims to develop tools to automate the process. “We expect the market for the tools and methods to be developed to be worth more than US$ 1 million in the Brazilian market alone. Gonçalves recalls that the idea of the project began with a similar piece of work carried out for Embraer. FAPESP has approved financing of R$ 139,600 and US$ 71,000 for Fibraforte  for of this project – Development of Structures for Optimizing Tools.

Space laboratory
Training technological companies facilitates the execution of large-scale projects, chiefly in the aerospace sector. “Private companies are quicker on their feet than public bodies in hiring out companies and other bureaucratic procedures”, says Petrônio Noronha de Souza, coordinator, at Inpe, of the Brazilian Space Research program, a huge orbital laboratory under construction, the cost of which is being borne by 16 countries.

Inpe’s function is to manage and supervise the work, by delegation from the Brazilian Space Agency  (AEB in the Portuguese acronym). Brazil will manufacture six pieces of equipment, of which the most important is the Express Pallet, a sort of experiments  workbench. It is a 1-ton structure to be fastened to a truss frame outside the Space Station, leaving experiments subject to micro-gravitational conditions, enabling the study of the molecular structures of various groups of substances.

“The strategy for this project was to find a large company to undertake all the details of the execution of the work”, explains Noronha. The Brazilian company chosen to manage the entire work (the prime contractor) was Embraer, after a pre-selection process arranged by Inpe. The company has already hired 15 companies for preliminary studies. To each of them, hypothetical plans were asked to be prepared in which requirements such as quality and security could be assessed. The task was completed in August. The most optimistic forecasts are that Embraer will make concrete proposals to the companies by the end of the first half of the year. However, as with any initial flight, this solo experience of the Brazilian prime contractor is likely to begin cautiously and carefully. Ronaldo Bolonha, in charge of the Space Station project with Embraer, does not risk promising dates and insists that the company’s main business is aircraft construction. “Our participation in the Space Station is based on the assumption that it will not interfere with the current operations”, he declares.

Sectoral analysis
Space agencies like NASA, in the United States, or the National Space Studies Center  (CNES), in France, are planning the program’s activities, but the companies are in charge of the development. “In Brazil’s case, the situation is different. Foreign consultancy companies are still hired and Inpe is building the satellites”, says the economist André Tosi Furtado, a professor at Unicamp’s Scientific and Technological Policy Department. He is doing research for the CBERS project and observed that the role of developing the conceptual project, preparing the methodology, testing, and integrating is almost all carried out by Inpe. He is the author of the research project Appraisal of the Economic Impact of the CBERS Program: a study of Inpe’s suppliers financed by FAPESP. “The institute has always wanted Brazilian companies to take over the entire system, but with no great success so far”.

In Tosi’s opinion, although limited, the project led to a leap in quality in the Brazilian companies taking part in the CBERS. “So far, the project has cost US$ 300 million, of which a third, almost US$ 100 million, is being borne by Brazil. Of this part, 85% of the cost has been spent in this country itself, paid to Brazilian companies”, he says. It was no coincidence that the investment of Brazilian money in purchasing products and services in the country itself, was one of the clauses established in the contract with the Chinese.  Although the research is still in progress, Tosi can already pick out important gains in technological learning and development. “The high level of documentation requirements demanded by Inpe in the manufacture of equipment for the satellites, inevitably led companies to an organizational learning. The companies incorporated these methods into the conception, design, and manufacture, ensuring improved quality standards in products and processes, leading to greater security when developing new projects”.

“Inpe has no interest in manufacturing satellites. The institute’s natural tendency is not to become a factory, but rather a stimulus to encourage manufacturing in Brazil. We are the head of the system”, says José Raimundo Braga Coelho, manager of the CBERS program. He remembers that, around 15 years ago, Inpe began an qualification program in order to transfer technology to companies. “Initially there was a public tender process for companies that wished to be qualified. When the contracts came round, having been through the program added points in the tendering process”, he says.

One of the first companies qualified in this stage was Digicon, from Gravataí, Rio Grande do Sul, specializing in industrial automation. Today, it can list among its accomplishments the construction of the solar panels for the SCD-2 (launched in 1999), of the Scientific Application Satellites (Saci in the Portuguese acronym) 1 and 2 (1 was lost in orbit and 2 exploded together with the rocket launching it into space) and the two CBERS satellites. In the second Sino-Brazilian satellite, being assembled at the LIT – the Tests and Integration Laboratory at Ipen, it also produced the external structure and the carbon fiber and aluminum box containing the satellite’s equipment.

Jigsaw puzzle
But, in 1989, the proposal to build the solar panels for the SCD-2 seemed an almost unattainable challenge. “We had hired a German company to manufacture the solar panels of the SCD-1 (The first Brazilian satellite launched in 1993). But we insisted that various Brazilian specialists on following up the manufacturing . The staff learned the main steps and then had to solve the jigsaw puzzle of reproducing them here”, recalls Jânio Kono. The company’s director, Corrado Lachini, is still amused by the recollections of that pioneering period. “We went to Germany and the company opened its doors wide, since they thought we would never able to do it”, he says.

Made up of thousands of silicone plaques from China, the three CBERS-2 panels could generate 1,100 watts of electric power for operating the onboard equipment. That is enough power to plug in ten television sets at the same time. In order to pursue the activities of the space sector, Digicon has set up a specific department, the Advanced Technology Sector, which already has 13 people in it. Today, there are seven professionals, including engineers and technicians, which, at the moment, are spread over other departments of the company, while there are no new contracts to work on. The manufacture of traffic control systems, intelligent turnstiles, banking automation equipment, and check processors among other products, ensures the Digicon group’s survival. The company is also one of the participants in the pre-qualification program for the Space Station.

Staying in the country
Many Brazilian companies want to become involved in space, developing technology, improving the quality staff and fulfilling the task of being suppliers for major projects in the fields of astronomy and space. In this way, it is avoided the necessary investment in buying equipment is carried out abroad, and better still, it creates local technology. At the end of the day, everyone wins: the investment and its profits, direct and indirect, stay in the country.

Low-temperature  refrigerator inside the satellite

Developing a satellite refrigeration system based on thermo-acoustic phenomena. This was the challenge facing Equatorial Sistemas, of São José dos Campos, when, in 1997, it filed a request for financing, with FAPESP, under the Technological Innovation in Small Companies Program  (PIPE). Today, the equipment already has various prototypes. The engineer Humberto Pontes Cardoso, the project coordinator in the company, explains that the equipment will keep the infrared detection cameras (which map the soil of a heavenly body) working at the ideal temperature for this type of equipment; 190 degrees below zero. Thus, when the satellite is under the effect of the sun’s rays, the refrigerator will have to lower the temperature from around 15 degrees above zero – the average temperature inside the satellite – to minus 190° C.

Cardoso, a mechanical engineer with a doctorate in thermal sciences, explains that, on earth, heat transfer is commonly carried out in the air. In a vacuum, another method of heat exchange has to be found. Advantage is taken, therefore, of the most abundant energy available in a satellite, electricity. It becomes acoustic energy and is responsible for refrigeration. In a domestic refrigerator, the gas is compressed until it becomes liquid, to exchange heat with the atmosphere. In a satellite refrigerator, the sound wave produced by the vibration will produce the refrigeration”, explains Cardoso.

The first prototype manufactured by the researcher was made up essentially of three components: a resonator, a tube filled with helium and xenon gas, a trigger or driver, which is a small loud-speaker, and a thermo-acoustic phaser, the DTA, a device responsible for transforming acoustic into thermal energy. When the loudspeaker is triggered by the proper frequency (using the satellite’s electric power), it vibrates, producing sound waves on the gas, which exchanges thermal energy with the DTA, thus cooling it down. The amount of liquid drawn off is proportional to the work done by the sound in passing through the gas”, explains Cardoso. In a second prototype, the researcher swapped the loudspeaker for another type of trigger, a piezoelectric crystal, a material that has the property of expanding, when it receives positive voltage, and shrinking when it receives negative voltage. This happens because this crystal has the property of changing size when submitted to voltage differences. This movement causes successive vibrations, turning the electrical energy into acoustic in the same way as the loudspeaker. The new prototype, according to the researcher, has the advantage of being lighter than the first, but he is still studying which model is the more efficient.

So far, neither of these devices is available in the market and qualified for the flight. “The more developed countries, have already mastered a high-cost refrigeration system appropriate for cooling missile sensors that have a short useful life of one or two days. But for use in satellites that stay in orbit in space for up to ten years, it s a very expensive solution. There is considerable competition for this type of equipment at a lower cost and with simpler manufacturing processes”, states the researcher.

The project has a budget of R$ 260,000. The testing at the National Space Research Institute (Inpe) is expected to be done in August or September this year. Afterwards, the target is to win a place in Inpe’s experiments and send a prototype into space. “This technology, as well as being very promising for application in space, could also be a good option for domestic refrigerators, since it replaces CFC with helium gas, which is inert and does not affect the ozone layer”, says Cardoso.

The Project
Development of  Refrigerators Based on the Thermo-acoustic Phenomenon (nº 97/07357-7); Type Technological Innovation in Small Companies Program (PIPE); Coordinator Humberto Pontes Cardoso –  Equatorial Sistemas; Investment R$ 260,135