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Petrochemical industry

Amplified energy

Thematic networks bring together Petrobras and 76 research institutions in projects that are going to receive R$ 1 billion

TANQUE DE PROVAS NUMÉRICO (TPN) / POLI-USPProject for the Platform P-52 that had collaboration from Poli-USP researchersTANQUE DE PROVAS NUMÉRICO (TPN) / POLI-USP

One of the most expressive partnerships between scientific institutions and a company, in this case Petrobras, is initiating its activities with the participation of 76 research institutions in 17 Brazilian States. The thematic networks will have R$ 1 billion at their disposition over a three year period. This sum is equivalent to 0.5% of the company’s petroleum production in high productivity oil fields that must be destined, by federal law and contractual clause, to partnerships with Brazilian institutions. A further 0.5% is guaranteed for application at the Petrobras Research Center (Cenpes), where 923 tertiary level educated professionals work. The financial value of this partnership is an estimate and should suffer oscillations because it depends on the production level and the market value of a barrel of crude oil during all of this period.

There are around 700 researchers subdivided into 38 networks, each one with a theme and with the minimum participation of five institutions. “Among the macro-objectives of these networks and the Cenpes are to increase more and more the production of crude oil and natural gas; to refine the maximum possible (resulting in fuels and other derivatives), as well as for us to develop new energy sources, such as biomass, biodiesel, alcohol, biogas and hydrogen”, explains arlos Soligo Camerini, the general manager of Petrobras’ technology administration. This type of partnership has been carried more effectively since the end of 1980’s and has already brought many benefits to the current stage of petrochemical production by the state company that achieved auto-sufficiency in petroleum production in April of this year. “Hardly ever do we develop a technology that has not had university participation”, explains Camerini. These are technologies for oil prospecting in deep waters, pipelines for transporting the crude oil and fuels, as well as geological studies, specific software production for the sector and research into alternative and renewable energy sources.

The networks will change this scenario for the better up until now molded by single projects carried out between a university laboratory and the Cenpes, although this type of partnership must also continue, now on a lesser scale. The new format established a more institutional relationship that involves rectors, pro-rectors and company managers. Each network has an administrator, who will be a Petrobras representative, and a technical-scientific committee, formed by professors from the institutions related to the theme. “Each committee is going to analyze and accompany the network projects”, explains  professor Celso Pupo Pesce, from the Polytechnic School (Poli), the representative of the University of São Paulo (USP) within the Sub-Marine Structures Network, one of the 21 networks in which the university will have researchers. This network will be responsible for elaborating projects related to the development of structure calculation methodologies; experiments and qualification of pipelines; connectors and risers, which are the perforation and production tubes that link the on sea level platforms to the sea bed. Within this network there will be participation by researchers from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and the Federal Center of Technological Education in the town of Campos, Rio de Janeiro State.

Deep dedication
Celso Pesce is an example of the research trajectory of partnerships between university and Petrobras. “I began as a trainee in engineering at the Technology Research Institute (IPT) in 1977, in oil prospecting projects at depths of between 50 and 200 meters. Today we’re working on projects with cables and tubing going down to depths of 3,000 meters”, he says. Another network with USP participation is that of Computing and Scientific Visualization that has professor Kazuo Nishimoto, also from Poli, as the university representative on the technical-scientific committee. In his laboratory called the Numerical Tests Tank, he is developing experiments with a sophisticated computer system, which includes visualization in 3-dimensions (3D), which analyzes, in a virtual manner, the effects of wind, waves and currents on crude oil and natural gas extraction ships and platforms in the sea. In this network, he will have on the committee company from the UFRJ, the Catholic Pontificate University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC- Rio), the IPT, the Federal University of Alagoas (Ufal) and the Aeronautical Technology Institute (ITA).

“We already had some type of interaction with other universities, but with the networks the interactivity will be greater with bigger and better projects”, explains Roberto Lotufo, the executive director of Unicamp’s Innovation Agency (Inova), who is the university’s representative indicated by the rector to deal with Petrobras’ thematic networks. “We’re accustomed to carrying out administration between the university and companies”, says Lotufo, recalling the agency’s experience in search of, for example, the licensing of patents coming from university research. Unicamp is present in 19 of the networks, within which is that of nanotechnology applied to the energy industry, which is going to research the development of nanostructured materials (at the level of nanometers, measurements equivalent to 1 millimeter divided by a million) to be used in the production of equipment and industrial compounds.

The university acts in networks, principally with the Petroleum Studies Center (Cepetro), founded in 1987, and formed by mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering faculties, as well as the Geosciences Institute that function in the areas of crude oil exploration and production. “In 2004, the sum paid out for the partnerships in projects of companies with Unicamp reached R$ 5 million and has increased, in a consistent manner, over the last few years”, says Lotufo.

One of the main factors for the success of these partnerships is the formation of professionals for the petrochemical industry who will be continued within the thematic projects. “Since the formation of Cepetro there have been more than 250 postgraduate students that became employees of Petrobras”, says professor Saul Suslick, the center’s director. One result that shows the investment is the company’s necessity, over the last few years, to increase the production and refining of crude oil until it achieved self-sufficiency for the country.

ALVARO VICTOR / MARCUS ALMEIDAOceanic tank at UFRJ: research with platform and ship modelsALVARO VICTOR / MARCUS ALMEIDA

Formation of professionals
Making use, on the part of the company, of recently formed graduates is also an example to be followed at the UFRGS. Established in 1957, the university’s geology course has  graduated around 1,000 geologists up until last year. Of  these, 255 joined Petrobras. “In some years, 50% of the graduates went to work in the company or for its suppliers”, says the professor José Carlos Frantz, the director of the UFRGS’s Geosciences Institute. The accumulated experience is leading this university to participate in 17 networks such as the Sedimentology and Stratigraphy Studies, which aims to study and elaborate projects on the analysis of the geological strata and the verification of the age of rocks with the objective of locating new crude oil / natural gas fields or evaluating the existing ones.

“We detail out the oil fields, verify how they were formed and analyze the rock formation of the reservoirs”, explains Frantz. For him, the networks are going to bring about a multiplication of research projects, making them more routine, as well as providing greater cooperation with other research centers.
The greater interaction between the research institutions was also highlighted by professor Angela Uller, the director general of the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Post-Graduation and Engineering Research Institute (Coppe) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “We’ll have more projects directed towards future developments”, says  Angela. The Coppe is present in 32 of the 38 thematic networks. As well as participating in the Naval Construction Technology network, an area in which the institution collaborated in one of the triumphs of the company in open sea oil prospecting – the use of crude oil tankers, adapted as platforms –, the Coppe is also participating on 24 scientific committees of other networks.

“Our first formal partnership with Petrobras took place in 1977, but since 1967 we’ve been involved in smaller and more specific projects. Up until 2001 there were 1,000 projects carried out in partnership and in 2006 we hit the mark of 2,000 projects”, says Angela. This increase over a four year period is mainly accredited to research funded by the Petroleum Sectorial Fund (CTPetro), managed through the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), which receives royalties from the production of crude oil and natural gas. One of the most significant projects is the ocean tank, with a capacity of  23 million liters, 40 meters in length and 30 meters in breadth and with a depth of up to 25 meters, capable of producing waves and currents. All of the development work at the Coppe, which includes robots for operating at profound depths and pipelines for crude oil transportation, have resulted in 72 patent requests in Brazil and 14 international requests. These are patents also in partnership with Petrobras and considered of a defensive category because they are not, in the majority of cases, commercialized or licensed to third parties “They don’t generate benefits to the research institution”, says Angela. “Today there’re complaints from the universities to the extent that we don’t obtain any financial participation upon the intellectual property of the technologies that we develop”, says Lotufo.

Petrobras has accepted to discuss the issue and a commission, with various universities and research institutes, has presented proposals that are being analyzed by the company. “The proposals are in the judicial phase with our lawyers and consultants. I believe we’ll achieve an alternative palatable to both sides”, comments Petrobras’ general manager Camerini.

The solution to the patents should be reached by the end of this year, a period dedicated to the mounting and improvement of laboratories throughout the country. The research projects phase will begin in 2007. At the UFRJ, for example, buildings will be constructed, laboratories revitalized and cutting edge equipment acquired, all within an area of 12,000 m2 at Coppe. “At Unicamp specific buildings for Petrobras projects will be built”, says Lotufo.

But the networks are not just formed by traditional research institutions or by large structures, as demonstrated by the Marine Environment Monitoring Network, – one of those that had the largest participation with 18 institutions –, which is going to deal with projects on the description and monitoring of coastal and marine ecosystems. Among the participants, as well as the Federal University of Bahia (Ufba) and the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Para State, is the Pro-Tamar Foundation, for the protection of marine turtles, and the Humpback Whale Foundation.

The major new idea lies in a thematic network that will not need to construct buildings nor purchase equipment. Called Convergent Technologies, this network will deal with ideas as its raw material. “We understand that some technologies, when coming together, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and others, can bring about changes in many sectors and generate different products”, says Camerini. “An example is the union between engineering and medicine that created medical and diagnostic equipment such as the ultra-sonograph and others that have changed the situation of human life.”

The tendency of this network, formed by around 50 to 60 researchers from various areas, is to analyze technologies that are in other networks, but not in a traditional manner, as well as examining others outside of the energy area. Psychoanalysts, medical doctors, engineers and teachers will be participating. “We’re going to think about what none of the other 37 networks are thinking”, suggests Lotufo, who is also going to participate in the network. Another objective is to think how Petrobras is going to prepare itself for the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

The intention of the network, which will initially be formed by researchers from UFRJ, Unicamp, USP, UFRGS and ITA, is also to generate ideas that will overtake the company’s field. One of the participants, the medical doctor Paulo Hilário Saldiva, a professor at USP’s Medical School, has proposals for a new profile of fuel choices that will contribute to the public and social health of Brazil and of the planet. “We could change the current perception of bio-fuels from being only an alternative product. The lower toxicity in relation to fossil fuels could well define them as the main fuel. And, in production costs, the benefits that they bring to the environment should be discounted”, explained doctor Saldiva. “As well as this, the production of bio-fuels could diminish the social gap. Imagine Europe purchasing alcohol from African countries, for example.”

The ideas could go much further, in the opinion of doctor Saldiva. “Imagine that a subway line could save up to 3 million barrels of oil per year (if a determined number of people exchanged their car for the trains). With the high prices of a barrel and having the necessity to save  crude oil and to guarantee a longer lifetime for the reserves, why doesn’t Petrobras enter as a partner in the subway?”, asks Saldiva. “We need to change the level of consumption of fuels, diminishing urban journeys that can result in benefits both for the petroleum company and for public health.”