MARCOS GARUTIFAPESP and Vale S.A. entered into an agreement of cooperation to involve the scientific community in the state of Sao Paulo in research themes that are of interest to Brazil’s largest private sector company and the second largest mining enterprise in the world. During the next four years, R$40 million are to be invested – of which half will come from FAPESP and the other half from Vale – in projects capable of contributing to the progress of knowledge in the fields of mining, ferrous processes for steel mills, energy, ecoefficiency and biodiversity. At the same time, these are to take into account the application of knowledge in technological development. The agreement was signed on December 23, at a ceremony held at the FAPESP head office in São Paulo and was attended by the state’s vice-governor (Alberto Goldman), Vale’s CEO (Roger Agnelli), FAPESP’s president (Celso Lafer), the director of ITV/Vale Technological Institute (Luiz Eugênio Mello), and FAPESP’s scientific director (Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz).
“By mobilizing researchers from the São Paulo institutions, we are seeking the development of technologies and processes capable of changing paradigms within Vale” says Luiz Eugênio Mello, the director of ITV, which is the mining firm’s research unit. “It isn’t merely about achieving incremental or specific individual gains, because, for this, we will continue to invest in our own research and in partnering arrangements with universities and researchers.” According to him, in 2008, US$38 million were invested in agreements to develop projects that are of interest to the firm. “We have partnership agreements with the University of São Paulo in the area of logistics, with the Federal University of Minas Gerais in hydro-metallurgy, and with the Federal University of Ouro Preto in mining,” he says.
In 2008, Vale invested US$1.13 billion in R&D, ranking 101th worldwide among the 1,000 publicly traded companies that spend the most in R&D, according to a Booz & Company survey. Vale has some 500 researchers on its staff in Brazil and abroad – of which half have PhDs. In 2008, its sales amounted to US$38.5 billion.
According to Mello, the partnership with FAPESP is explained by the size of the São Paulo scientific community, which is Brazil’s largest and accounts for 51% of the number of articles published in indexed international journals, and by the Foundation’s experience in collaborating with enterprises, one example of which is the creation in 1995 of PITE, the Technological Innovation Research Partnership program. According to Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, the themes of the cooperation agreement, some of which are quite broad, reflect the complexity of Vale’s activities and the challenges that it faces. “This breadth unveils multiple opportunities in several fields of knowledge,” he says. According to Brito Cruz, the cooperation agreement is yet one more opportunity that FAPESP is offering the São Paulo State research community to get involved in research themes that are relevant for a major company and for Brazilian society. “Traditionally, FAPESP has invested in the training of human resources and in providing support for academic research in all fields of knowledge, while also considering that it is important to promote research into projects that explore the possibilities of interaction between universities and enterprises,” he says, referring to the recent cooperation agreements with companies such as Microsoft, Dedini, Braskem and Sabesp, among others. In 2008, 9% of the Foundation’s investments were earmarked for research geared toward applications, to a total of R$57.4 million. The training of human resources accounted for 35% of its spending and support for academic research, for 56%.
MARCOS GARUTIRemote sensing
The Vale/FAPESP agreement covers a long list of research themes. In the mining area for instance, it includes, to mention only two examples, the search for mineral prospecting methods by remote sensing and studies about the geological forming of caves and the species that inhabit them. In the energy field, it ranges from the development of new means of obtaining biofuels, using algae and forest waste, an area in which Vale has no expertise, to the study of models capable of improving the efficiency of hydroelectric generation, among others. There is also interest in investing in research in the field of ecoefficiency and biodiversity, in order to speed up the recovery of degraded environments or diminish the environmental damage that results from the firm’s activities, besides improving the use of water resources and identifying sustainable materials for use in the constructions that are near mines. Another line of research concerns ferrous products for steel mills. This covers the improvement of processes to obtain raw materials, the development of new products or the mathematical modeling of all the stages of the processing of ore in order to improve its efficiency, among others. “Some of these areas, such as the quest for new biofuel routes and environmental accounting, are new to Vale,” says Luiz Eugênio Mello. “Others, such as improving energy efficiency and biodiversity, were already the target of partnership arrangements with researchers. And there are also areas such as the geotechnical one in which we have our own research, but where we feel that an external view might benefit us,” he continues.
The initiative is the result of a new Vale R&D strategy. Although in its early days the company had an active technology executive office, as of the 1990s the research activities were spread across several business units and even to other countries, such as Canada, thanks to the acquisition of foreign competitors. “One side effect of this model is that the business units lacked the mandate to undertake broader actions. And the relationship with the academic milieu was incipient,” states Mello. This model was reviewed last year, with the creation of ITV, the Vale Institute of Technology, designed to coordinate the firm’s science and technology activities. This was when the invitation to head it was extended to Mello, a physiology professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).
Two years ago, Mello, who had previously been Unifesp’s Dean of Research, visited Vale’s head offices to formalize a partnership proposal for the training of engineers. At the end of his presentation, he was invited to join the company. “I had no idea that that was a recruiting meeting,” says Mello, whose CV includes, among other activities, that of joint coordinator of FAPESP’s scientific executive office from 2003 to 2006. “We have now set up a technological governance matrix that coordinates all activities that involve academia,” he states.
ITV provided 86 grants for master’s degrees and doctoral students in Pará, all of whom are researching themes of direct interest to Vale, such as mining, energy and biodiversity. The institute is to have three research centers, each targeting a specific area. The one in Minas Gerais state will be set up in the town of Ouro Preto and is to specialize in mining themes; the one in Pará state will be set up in the state capital of Belém and is to prioritize research into sustainable development; and the one in São Paulo state will focus on energy innovations. One of the latter’s chief partners is to be the technological center of the company Vale Soluções em Energia [Vale Energy Solutions] in the city of São José dos Campos. “To a significant degree, Vale’s growth was the result not only of its excellence in the management area, but also of investments in technology. If the Tubarão port is regarded as the country’s most efficient one, it is because there was a great deal of research into computer and mathematical analyses underpinning this competence,” he states, referring to the privately-owned port in Vitória (Espírito Santo state) run by Vale. The company is also entering into cooperation agreements similar to the FAPESP one with two other state research foundations: Fapemig, from Minas Gerais, and Fapespa, from Pará. “Vale plays a major role in the production activities of these two states,” Mello explains. Fapemig is to invest R$20 million and Fapespa, R$8 million, to be added to Vale’s contribution of R$20 million in Minas Gerais and R$32 million in Pará. If one adds the total investment including the three foundations, the figure totals R$120 million. For Fapemig’s president, Mario Neto Borges, this partnering agreement encourages the links with three areas (private-sector firms, academia and the government) that have had communication difficulties, historically. “We are overcoming paradigms. The weight of the Vale name opens doors for other companies to become interested in entering into partnering agreements,” he believes.
According to Mello, the projects with the greatest chances of getting a grant will be those that propose research to be conducted by inter-state networks, in other words, by a Pará university along with a Minas Gerais or São Paulo one, and vice-versa. “One of our chief aims is to encourage the exchange of experiences and the interchange of knowledge, resources and infrastructure among the institutions,” he explains. Partnering with Finep (the Studies and Projects Finance Agency) and with CNPq (the National Scientific and Technological Development Council) are also within the scope of the new strategy. “Our objective in expanding our research investment is to ensure that Vale, within a few years, can operate with increasingly lower environmental impact and energy costs and resort to new technologies so that it may, increasingly, prevent degradation and lessen problems in the early days, quickly recovering degraded areas. And, of course, we’re trying to find new methods of mineral prospecting,?” Mello concludes.Republish