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Competitive measurements

Inmetro seeks universities to participate in a Brazilian metrology network

zé vicenteAn initiative to increase cooperation between universities and companies in the field of metrology, a field that studies and standardizes weights and measurements and evaluates the quality of products and processes, is beginning to gain steam with the expansion of a network of laboratories created in 2013 by the National Institute of Metrology, Quality and Technology (Inmetro). A call for candidates together with the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), with R$3 million in grants, is expected to result in the addition of up to seven new research groups to the Network of Inmetro-Affiliated Laboratories for Innovation and Competitiveness (Relai) in 2015. Initially developed as a pilot project, today the network consists of the Nanospectroscopy Laboratory of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and the Institute of Ceramic Materials of the University of Caxias do Sul (UCS). The result of the call for candidates, whose deadline is in April 2015, will be published in October 2015. The successful candidates will be allowed to use Inmetro’s research center facilities in Xerém, Rio de Janeiro State.

In a statement, physicist Carlos Alberto Aragão, Inmetro’s technology and innovation director, said that the network’s strategy was to strengthen connections between universities, institutions and companies on research involving metrology and related fields, such as materials science. According to Idelazil Cristina Nobre Silva, general coordinator of strategic programs of the Capes office for programs and grants, they also need to augment human resource training and the involvement of researchers in innovative projects. “In addition, the expansion of the network is an opportunity to share costs, reducing the technological risk of innovation,” says Silva. One of the requirements to becoming a member of Relai is that the laboratory establish partnerships with industry.

One of the network’s branches, the UFMG Nanospectroscopy Laboratory, is collaborating with a group in the mining industry to solve the problem of the potential contamination of air during the mineral extraction process. The project, explains physicist Ado Jório, one of the laboratory’s engineers, intends to develop all of the methodology needed to measure the number of nanoparticles in the air and identify which are the result of mining-generated pollution. “We would like to move forward in the field of nanometrology, which is measurement-oriented nanotechnology. Together with Inmetro, we can contribute to industrial development, generating new processes,” says Jório. One of his group’s interests is the application of a technique known as Raman spectroscopy to identify the properties of carbon nanotubes. The approach paved the way for new nanotube applications and resulted in collaborations between Jório and more then 100 groups abroad (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 196).

Another project underway at LabNS focuses on the use of spectroscopy in clinical diagnostics. “Blood tests are done using chemical tests. We’re seeking to develop a type of analysis that uses light to determine the composition of physical-chemical elements,” explains Jório. The researcher and his team have also tried to apply the technique to detecting the accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins, which play a central role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. “By using optics, we hope to be able to perform early diagnosis of this clinical condition,” he says.

Scientific research in metrology in Brazil is concentrated in research institutes linked to the federal government. In addition to Inmetro, two other entities are part of this system: The Radiation Protection and Dosimetry Institute, responsible for metrology related to ionizing radiation (X and gamma-rays), and the National Observatory, in Rio de Janeiro, which focuses on metrology for time and frequency in the fields of astronomy and geophysics. Sometimes collaborations are established between these institutions and universities, research centers and companies, resulting in the formation of partnerships in specific areas, such as the Brazilian Network of Legal Metrology and Quality and the Chemistry Metrology Network, both established recently. One of the first experiments was the Metrological Network in Rio Grande do Sul, formed in 1992. The initiative brings together laboratories in that state and in Uruguay, as well as institutions and companies from other parts of Brazil.

The main difficulty in the field, explains Humberto Siqueira Brandi, Inmetro scientific metrology director, is related to the high cost of equipment maintenance. “Another problem is the need for funds to expand the laboratories,” he explains. Despite this, Brandi states that research and development activities, begun in 2003 at Inmetro, have advanced. In 2002, he says, the institute had only two PhDs on its staff; today there are about 250. “Inmetro now has quite modern laboratories, such as the Electronic Microscopy Center,” says Brandi.

Valve (yellow) to measure gas flow in a test line at the IPT metrology laboratory, in São Paulo

eduardo cesarValve (yellow) to measure gas flow in a test line at the IPT metrology laboratory, in São Pauloeduardo cesar

Marcio Ramos, institutional liaison for Inmetro, explains that the projects supported by the network should not necessarily prioritize only the fields directly related to metrology. “We want to embrace fields of knowledge with the potential to increase business competitiveness,” he says. At the UCS Institute of Ceramic Materials, for example, one study seeks to develop glass-ceramic materials for the petrochemical industry from acidic volcanic rocks that are widely available in Brazil. The project is being carried out in collaboration with an unnamed Brazilian construction company.

“Glass-ceramics are not new. They were first developed in the 1950s. But production using this type of rock is not frequently studied globally,” says José Vitório Emiliano, a researcher at the institute. “This material is very resistant to chemical attacks and abrasion and can be used to line pipes used in the petrochemical industry,” he concludes. In another initiative, the UCS institute found a partner aside from Inmetro, the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). Both the Brazilian institute and its German counterpart are interested in reference materials in order to calibrate equipment used in evaluating thermophysical properties at temperatures above 1,400°C. “Today we have reference materials limited to temperatures of about 1,000°C,” says Emiliano.

The challenge of precision

Metrology is one of the most traditional fields of research at the São Paulo Institute for Technological Research (IPT). “This field of knowledge is essential to evaluating—through a performance measurement—whether a new product or process is really innovative with respect to the previous version. It is one of the foundations of a country’s scientific and technological development,” claims Kazuto Kawakita, director of the IPT Mechanical, Electrical and Fluid Metrology Center. The Institute is a pioneer in the field of metrology in Brazil.

One of the institute’s ongoing challenges is to improve the reliability of the calibration of metrological equipment, for example, when calibrating the gas meters used for measuring the cost of natural gas transported and transferred to residences, factories and power plants. In Brazil, explains Kawakita, the equipment used to measure natural gas is calibrated in laboratories under nearly ideal conditions, with low-pressure air. “The problem is that these meters work under gas pipeline operation pressures, which are much greater,” he explains. The difference between ideal and real conditions could lead to different metrological performances of the meter, resulting in measurement errors and, thus, financial losses. “Someone could be losing a lot of money because of this,” he says. Other countries already have standards and regulations on this subject.

A partnership between IPT, the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP), an unnamed manufacturer of meters in Itu (São Paulo State), and companies interested in the technology, including Petrobras and Comgás, seeks to create a prototype of a new gas meter and a special set of tests for calibrating gas under high pressure. “Instead of natural gas, we will use CO2 which, even at a lower pressure, is capable of simulating the operating conditions of a gas pipeline under higher pressures,” explains Kawakita.