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Cutting-edge dialog

FAPESP and companies create engineering research centers with long-term financing in order to work at the cutting edge of knowledge

RAUL AGUIARFAPESP’s strategy to encourage research by business and foster a closer relationship between the university and the productive sector reached a new level with the introduction of engineering research centers. These centers, sponsored by the Foundation and private companies, have obtained long-term financing and are engaged in research areas on the frontiers of knowledge. Four companies—the automaker Peugeot Citroën Brasil, the Brazilian cosmetics company Natura, the oil and gas company BG Brasil and the multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)—recently concluded cooperation agreements with FAPESP, followed by the issue of a call for proposals to establish the centers, which aim to bring together researchers from São Paulo’s institutions and universities and these companies. Through these agreements, FAPESP and its partner companies will share investments of R$114 million for a 5-10 year period. Investments by the institutions hosting the centers will be added to this amount, provided in the form of operating expenses and salaries. “The engineering research centers implemented through a partnership between FAPESP and these Brazilian companies are poised to innovate within a university-business collaborative environment here in Brazil. Such an effort opens up the possibility for joint and long-term research plans, thereby creating a much more effective interaction between academic researchers and companies than what usually happens under short-term projects,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director.

The results of the Peugeot Citroën call for proposals have already been announced: researchers from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), University of São Paulo (USP), the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) and the Mauá Institute of Technology, in conjunction with Peugeot Citroën’s engineers will seek to develop and improve engines powered by biofuels, in a research effort to make them as efficient as gasoline and diesel engines. The project will be supported for four years and is renewable for another six years. The investment will be about R$32 million for a period of 10 years, of which R$8 million comes from FAPESP, R$8 million from Peugeot Citroën, and about R$16 million is provided in the form of operating expenses and salaries paid by the participating universities. The center will not have a fixed headquarters but will act as a network for the groups involved. “One of the pillars of our strategy is the development of clean technologies. We chose to partner with FAPESP and these Brazilian institutions to work on biofuels,” says Jean-Marc Finot, global head of research and advanced engineering for the PSA Peugeot Citroën Group. “This type of partnership is more common in Europe. Our goal is to look for new technologies to develop new functionalities and innovations. The scientific knowledge typical of academia is essential to implementing our objectives,” he says.

The network of researchers who will work at the Prof. Urbano Ernesto Stumpf Center for Research in Engineering was formed when the call for proposals was presented by FAPESP and Peugeot Citroën of Brazil, in October 2012. “We saw that the center had an ambitious vision and that the four universities and institutions could work in a complementary fashion,” says Waldyr Gallo, a professor at Unicamp’s School of Mechanical Engineering. “The idea was to create a structured approach to the project that would serve as the backbone in the early years and allow the center to gain autonomy and broaden its activities in the long term,” says Gallo. The Unicamp group’s research, led by Gallo, will focus primarily on thermodynamic simulations and analysis of engine performance and the durability of its components, in addition to other projects. Both the Poli-USP team, coordinated by Professor Guenther Krieger, and the ITA team, whose principal investigator is Professor Pedro Teixeira Lacava, will emphasize basic research, which includes studying the details of the physical and chemical phenomena of ethanol combustion. The two groups have been working on this line of research, funded by FAPESP and Vale. “We studied, under controlled conditions, the process of ethanol droplet and spray formation and their combustion, which enables us to calibrate computer models that simulate the combustion process in turbulent flow,” says Poli-USP’s Guenther Krieger. “In addition to supporting simulation models, the idea is to help design engines and make our current ones more efficient,” said Pedro Lacava, a professor at ITA. The knowledge generated by the three groups will be tested in trials at Mauá Institute, which maintains an engine laboratory, coordinated by Celso Argachoy. “We have the ability to assemble the engine and make it run the way we want it to run, by applying solutions developed within the group,” says Renato Romio, head of the Mauá Institute’s engine and vehicle laboratory. Peugeot Citroën selected French engineer Franck Turkovics as deputy director of the center. “We share with FAPESP a common goal: to achieve an application-ready design, one that it does not just linger in the research stage. This means marrying the engine and the biofuel,” says Turkovics.

RAUL AGUIARThe desire to develop a better performing ethanol engine is also motivated by academic interest—while the efficiency of gasoline engines is improving overseas, alcohol-based engine technology has been stagnant. “The idea is not to revive the alcohol engine model, which is already present in 90% of the Brazilian fleet and has been discredited by pricing and supply problems,” says Waldyr Gallo. Let’s imagine, he continues, that a new engine could be used in niche markets, such as light transport vehicles, or to enhance the ecological appeal of hybrid cars, which, obviously, would benefit flex-fuel engines, which have become standard in Brazil.

Opportunities to generate innovations
The inaugural model of the PSA Peugeot Citroën engineering research center combines features found in two FAPESP initiatives: the special program known as Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC), which provides long-term support for multidisciplinary teams involved in cutting-edge research areas and the FAPESP program known as Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE), which supports projects at research institutions developed in cooperation with companies and co-financed by them. FAPESP’s investment in each PITE project requires a counterpart contribution by the interested company, which expands the volume of resources and increases the odds of generating innovations with market impact. Since its inception in 1995, PITE has entered into more than 200 partnerships with companies like Braskem, Vale and Sabesp.

As with the RIDCs, new research centers have bold objectives that are difficult to achieve in short-term projects. An example of this type of ambitious project is the future Center for Applied Research on Well-being and Human Behavior, the subject of a call for proposals issued in late November 2013 by FAPESP and Natura. The center has a broad objective. It seeks to investigate issues such as the potential to identify scientific markers of well-being in the Brazilian population, find a biological basis for positive behavioral patterns, understand how the brain can help promote positive emotions and behaviors, in addition to understanding how the technological application of such knowledge could produce tools to evaluate and promote the well-being of a population. To do so, it wants to link this knowledge with experts in neuroscience, positive psychology, social psychology, neuroimaging, neuropsychophysiology, psychometrics, population and longitudinal studies, modeling and the construction of mathematical indicators. “Innovation has allowed Natura to develop products and find new business opportunities, and we believe it will continue to ensure the company’s sustainable growth. Well-being is one of the company’s three fields of research, alongside searching for sustainable technologies and developing new cosmetics,” says Gerson Pinto, vice president of innovation at Natura. “We expect to reap a bountiful harvest from the work of this center, through an expansion of the knowledge produced by universities and by generating differentials for our products and processes.” FAPESP and Natura will each invest R$1 million for a total of R$2 million per year to support the implementation of the center. Funding for the selected proposal will be granted for a period of 10 years. “We have a long-term relationship with FAPESP. As we are working on the open innovation model, the results will be felt beyond the business environment,” says Gerson Pinto.

RAUL AGUIARThe focus of the GlaxoSmithKline research center is to explore new aspects of sustainable chemistry through a multidisciplinary approach, in order to find more efficient uses of synthetics and develop renewable solvents and reagents from agricultural waste. The call for proposals to create the Center for Research in Sustainable Chemistry was issued in October, and the results should come out in August 2014. “We can understand that all chemical processes result in stable molecules and often also in residual substances remaining from those processes,” says Antonio José, GSK’s chief medical officer. “In crude accounting terms, these substances constitute a “surplus” that does not add value to the original process.  Furthermore, these residues can either be harmless or have some impact on health or the environment, requiring specific treatment prior to disposal. Sustainable chemistry seeks to optimize processes and reduce waste,” he says.

According to José, GSK frequently enters into development partnerships with other established companies or research institutions. “In this call for proposals we are open to investing in ideas created in Brazil that have the potential to benefit society,” he says. In order to fund the installation of the center of excellence, FAPESP and GSK foresee investments of R$30 million for a period of 10 years. “We saw that a number of areas of research that have already been discussed and studied in Brazil are innovative. We hope the research results produced by this center will have a positive impact and help in the internal process of optimization and continuous improvement of our processes.”

An international workshop, sponsored in October 2012 by FAPESP and BG Brasil—national arm of the British BG Group—identified the most significant scientific challenges and opportunities for innovation in natural gas applications in the next 5 to 10 years. Their findings were instrumental in the call for proposals, issued in August, to create a Research Center for Innovation in Natural Gas in São Paulo.  “We left the workshop with research priorities in mind on which BG was working and that were associated with our research priorities,” says Giancarlo Ciola, BG Brasil’s innovation manager. The company has a 27-year concession agreement to work 25% of the Lula field and 30% of the Sapinhoá field—both in the pre-salt area of the Santos basin—and one of its clauses stipulates that 1% of gross income be invested in research and development.

“The call for proposals for this research center will allow us to address a number of innovations, related, for example, to reducing emissions and the feasibility of using gas for ocean shipping, among others,” says Ciola. According to him, the opportunity to establish a robust and long-term program, similar to the RIDCs, inspired the company to create the center. “Collaboration is at the heart of our research and development strategy, since we have no internal laboratories. We are establishing a global technology center in Brazil to meet the demands of the group worldwide; we recognize this country’s potential to carry out cutting edge research in our industry.” Each partner will invest R$10 million within a five year period. A workshop to present the call for proposals to interested research groups is scheduled for December 2013.