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USP 70

Factory of inventions

In the series of articles on the 70 years of the University of São Paulo, Pesquisa FAPESP shows the technological solutions created by USP’s Polytechnic School, a hothouse of professionals who have helped to modernize the country

The 111 years of the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) sum up the trajectory of a country that knew how to modernize itself with swift steps. São Paulo took on cosmopolitan airs thanks, in good measure, to the contribution of pioneers like engineer Antonio Francisco de Paula Souza (1843-1917) or the constructor of tall buildings and mansions Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851-1928), both founders of the São Paulo Polytechnic School, in 1893.  At the end of the 1920s, when to govern was synonymous with building roads, the institution provided personnel to sketch the first draft of the highway network that, decades later, was to replace the railroads for good.  Polytechnic engineers even ventured to produce armored vehicles and grenades, when São Paulo arose against Getúlio Vargas in 1932. The School, which was incorporated by the University of São Paulo in 1934, was soon to gain fame as a hothouse of public men  – a number of governors of São Paulo went through it.  

Between the decades of the 1950s and the 1970s, that phase when the Brazilian economy grew at the pace of the Asiatic tigers and lacked technological solutions to back development, the polytechnic engineers perhaps lived their golden age.  “We would go to college by bus carrying that enormous T-square and called attention to ourselves.  Many a future engineer arranged a girlfriend like that”, recalls Professor Moacyr Martucci Júnior, the president of Poli-USP’s Research Commission. The advent of information technology caused an earthquake in engineering, which exploded into new specialties. From electrical engineering, computing engineering sprouted.  From electrical and mechanical engineering, mechatronics.  Computers brought the T-square a well deserved retirement and laid new foundations for teaching and research at the institution, where today 495 teaching staff are at work, and 4,300 undergraduates and 4,000 postgraduate students are studying. 

Poli-USP has morphed itself to maintain its modernizing role, and has continued to create devices capable of improving the well-being of society.  It is possible to cite noteworthy contributions from researchers and professionals educated at the institution in countless areas.  In the 1960s, planning in the area of transport in the country, which transformed traffic engineering into a science and was applied in the construction of the subway, also emerged thanks to the work of professors from the Poli, like Íon de Freitas and Antonio Galvão Novaes.  Between 1990 and 1994, USP’s Polytechnic School was run by Professor Francisco Romeu Landi, the director-president of FAPESP’s Executive Board, who died in April at the age of 71. 

If Brazil today has at its disposal an industry of microelectronics and expertise in the area of telecommunications, it owes this to the capacity of the Polytechnic School for doing research and forming personnel in these areas over the last 30 years. The school claims to have created the first Brazilian computer. Baptized as “Ugly Duckling”, it was the work of researchers from the area of electrical engineering, in 1972.  With the passage of 30 years, this seed has produced a tree laden with fruit. Although Brazil, like several other countries, has not managed to develop a competitive computer industry, as originally planned, the researchers from the IT area of Poli-USP have stood out for the creation of software and network security.

The School’s Computer Architecture and Networks Laboratory is a world-wide benchmark in cryptography codes. Paulo Barreto, a researcher from the Poli and head cryptographer of the Brazilian company Scopus, took part in the creation of the algorithms adopted for the digital signature of the European Community and of the American government, after winning international competitions for defining security standards. The Laboratory also created safe environments for the pages of several banks on the Internet and developed a security system for the payment of the Vehicle Tax (IPVA), which  put an end to the frauds practiced in São Paulo’s vehicle licensing department, Detran.

Numerical tank
In the telecommunications field, professors from the Poli-USP were hired at the beginning of the 1970s by Telebrás, to help to modernize the Brazilian telephone exchanges, which were analogic.  The digitalization of the switching centers expanded the access of Brazilians to a telephone and integrated the national territory. This group also developed, in 1976, the prototype that provided for international direct dialing calls.  Part of these researchers ended up straying away from the School to found Telebrás’s Researches and Development (CPqD), one of the principal dynamos of Brazilian research in telecommunications.

The Brazilian naval industry gained consistency from 1956 onwards, after a strategic agreement entered into between the Navy and the Poli, which gave origin to the Naval and Oceanic Engineering Department.  The department continues to be active, but it has found new vocations.  In the last fifteen years, it has strengthened its ties with Petrobras, in a line of research that culminated with the creation, in 2001, of a numerical test tank.  This is a simulator, equipped with a cluster of 120 personal computers, capable of forecasting three-dimensional models of anything: aircraft, cars, ships.  “In a numerical tank, the processing of information is much more rapid, and it is possible to carry out simulations of very complex systems”, says Professor Hélio Mitio Morishita, the head of the department.  In the case of Petrobras, the main interest is the development of oceanic systems, like oil platforms, too complex to be tested in a real test tank.

The Navy used the services of Poli-USP’s numerical tank before carrying out the adaptations to the aircraft carrier São Paulo, which used to belong to France.  There were doubts whether the enormous vessel would fit in the dry dock of the Navy’s arsenal, in Rio, where is was to be refurbished.  Based on images and measurements taken of the aircraft carrier and the dock, the tank showed that it would indeed be possible to park the aircraft carrier inside it – in actual fact, it was to be a close shave.  It was only after the simulation that the refit started.  Virtual reality tools are used more and more in engineering schools. Since 2000, the Polytechnic’s Integrable Systems Laboratory has been housing the Digital Cave, a complex for virtual reality, which creates an interactive environment by means of the projection of multiple images. Up to six people can enter the cave at the same time, and interact with the computer-simulated world. Besides its applications in the branches of engineering, the cave can also be used in medicine, in astronomy, and in the production of interactive games

The link between the vocations of the past and those of the present is becoming more palpable in some of Poli-USP’s departments, like the Electrical Energy and Automation Engineering department. Under the command of Professor José Roberto Cardoso, the Applied Electromagnetism Laboratory continues to work with research into electrical traction in railroads and subways.  “As we took part in the implantation of the first line of São Paulo’s subway, the knowledge has been built up”, Cardoso says.  There is not a lot of work to be done with regard to railroads, which are more and more losing importance as a means of transport.  But as several Brazilian capitals are building their subways, the laboratory has been summoned to help, by making simulations of the trains running along the track at various speeds, as well as of the quantity of electricity needed to make the whole system work. 

The laboratory is also devoted to research into electromagnetic interferences.  It has helped, for example, manufacturers of household appliances to control the electromagnetic emissions of their products at the internationally required levels. It has also assisted the Navy to do a study of the electromagnetic compatibility of the nuclear propelled submarine project that is being carried on at the Aramar complex, in the interior of São Paulo. This is an extremely sophisticated study, given the profusion of wires and circuits planned for the gigantic prototype. But the laboratory’s life is not limited to providing support for those who need it.  At the request of Petrobras, a tubular linear motor has been developed for extracting oil, which is going to replace the items of mechanical equipment known as nodding donkeys, installed in 9,000 wells on land in the country.  The electric motor has the gift of increasing the flow from the wells and suffers less wear and tear, since, unlike the nodding donkeys, it does not produce any attrition with the walls of the well.

The School gets involved in theoretical research with the same zeal with which it seeks solutions for prosaic problems. In the Transport Engineering Department, the use of a compound road surface in which blocks of cement concrete work in adherence with asphalt concrete is being tested. Brought from the United States, the technique creates a more resistant surface and helps with the maintenance of road surfaces with structural deficiencies.  The Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Department, the one with the School’s largest academic production, developed a method capable of recycling the discarded ore dust which pollutes the environment. This dust, produced in great quantity in the process of degrading the ore, would clog the furnaces and used to be regarded as useless. In work on the thermal behavior of materials, the researchers from the Poli found that when the iron ore dust was mixed with charcoal, pellets, or briquettes, were produced, which after a curing process, became extremely hard and could be stored. The waste and the pollution came to an end. Today, they are used in the furnaces as raw material for steel.   “The research had great importance in the quest for clean and nonpolluting processes in metallurgy”, says Professor José Deodoro Trani Capocchi, the head of the Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Department.  There are 400 scientific works published in indexed magazines each year. The researchers there sometimes help to solve crimes. At the request of the São Paulo Scientific Police, they prepare reports on the deformation of projectiles or the wear and tear of other materials that are capable of elucidating the circumstances of homicides or accidents.

Inside the Polytechnic, also at work is the International Water Reuse Referral Center (Cirra), linked to the Hydraulic and Sanitary Engineering Department. The group of researchers from this institution is working on several fronts, from the development of hydraulic systems that save water (like a cistern for a toilet that uses only 3 liters of water) to testing strategies for the reuse of water resources, such as the use of untreated water in agriculture, in industrial cooling systems, or in the irrigation of urban green areas.  They also help the National Water Agency to formulate new policies against waste. 

On the list of practical applications, a researcher from Cirra designed a system for reusing water that will serve the third terminal at Cumbica Airport, in Guarulhos, to be built in the next few years.  Today, all the water used at the airport’s two terminals, which receive 14 million passengers a year, is taken from the airport’s subsoil. The construction of a third terminal is going to call for a new solution, because the source of water is almost exhausted and there not be sufficient water.  The proposal is to submit the waste water to a partial treatment, using it again to wash the tarmac and to cool the airport’s air conditioning system, to mention two examples.  “It is possible to establish a more parsimonious use of the water by following multiple strategies”, says Professor Ivanildo Hespanhol, Cirra’s director. 

As in the majority of careers, field of knowledge in engineering has expanded a lot in the last few decades, and the Polytechnic School has striven to embrace all the developments, creating new departments and specializations. But the changes and oscillations in the labor market are so abrupt that a branch of engineering much contended for in an entrance exam may see its interest reduced a few years later, when the student is graduating. This has already happened several times. The traditional civil engineering, for example, lost strength in the 1980s, the lost decade in which Brazil stopped making hydroelectric power plants and highways, frustrating a generation of young professionals. Today, the demand for civil engineering has improved.  In spite of dearth of major works, room has opened up for engineers, for example, in the expansion of public works and infrastructure for sanitation.  Telecommunications engineering lived through its peak and fall in an extremely short period of time. With the privatizations, in the mid-1990s, competition in the entrance exams exploded, but there was a severe downturn in 2000 and 2001, which scared off the interest of the candidates.  “Neither the euphoria nor the hangover was justified”, says Paul Jean Etienne Jeszensky, a professor from the Telecommunications and Control Engineering Department.  “Today there is a move towards an equilibrium in the labor market, a scenario that is neither so good nor so bad as one imagined before”, he explains. 

Such oscillations are natural and, except for the disappointment that they generate in the newly graduated, do not bring any profound consequences.  It so happens that the polytechnic engineer is trained, above all, to adapt to new situations, to be ready to solve problems that cannot even be imagined today.   “The School provides an excellent basis. The student takes up the rest”, says Jeszensky. “We prepare professionals for taking decisions, professionals who are always ready to learn new things”, says Moacyr Martucci, the president of the Research Commission. Just as the civil engineers frustrated in the 1980s made dazzling careers inside and outside engineering – the financial market, for example, stocked itself abundantly with these professionals –, the telecommunications class will be absorbed.  But there are also courses that do not know of any crisis. Computing engineering offers two classes of 40 students at each entrance exam. One of these classes does a course on traditional lines.  The other has a different syllabus, in which theory and practice have the same weight.  The modules alternate every four months – with the student now dedicating himself to theoretical disciplines, then doing an attachment in a company, which the School itself undertakes to arrange for the pupils.  “The engineer leaves here with a strong theoretical basis, and also with noteworthy professional experience”, says Professor Wilson Vicente Ruggiero, from the Computing Engineering and Digital Systems Department.  

The School is rehearsing a conceptual change in the education of its pupils.  There is a demand in the market for work from professionals with a more humanistic baggage.  Today’s engineer has to take into account variables that were relegated in the old days.  It has been a long time since a hydroelectric power plant was designed without taking into account the ecological impact that the work would cause. Constructed at the beginning of the 1980s, the Balbina plant, which supplies Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, is an example of an extremely beautiful work of engineering that perpetrated an environmental crime, creating a gigantic lake in which species of trees are rotting to this day. “An excessively technical education sometimes makes the engineer think without taking into account that there are people in the process”, says Professor Hélio Morishita, whose department, of Naval and Oceanic Engineering, altered its syllabus and nowadays calls for its students to do 24 optional disciplines in other units of the University of São Paulo.

The choice of these disciplines is up to the student.  The best is for them to have a contact with sociology, communication, philosophy.  Some resist and take to the disciplines of the School of Economics and Management, which have more affinities with engineering”, Morishita says. The Electrical Engineering Department has brought about a similar alteration to its syllabus.  Humanization in the education of its pupils is one of the objectives of Poli 2015, a program to adapt the School, by 2015, to the challenges of this beginning of the century. Amongst the declared goals of  Poli 2015, those that stand out are “competence in the human relationship and in communication, an ethical posture, and cultural and social commitment to Brazil”.  Without giving up, of course, excellence in teaching.

The future of Poli-USP is virtual as well.  Distance education is now a reality.  The classes of 105 disciplines are recorded in video and made available on the Internet, as is the didactic material used by the professor.  Those who missed the lesson can watch it at home on the screen of the computer.  Should the virtual student not understand the explanation can interact in a chat session and ask questions.  If it is a doubt that another pupil has had before (80% of them are recurrent), the reply has been stored and comes up right away.  Otherwise, the professor replies later, by e-mail.  The courses and their didactic material are now beginning to be freely available to anyone who has a computer at home.  “The idea is to disseminate the knowledge deposited in the Poli to other engineering students and faculties, to give back to society, in the most ample form possible, the investment that it has made in this school”, says Professor Wilson Vicente Ruggiero. If it works, the school that was born linked to the elite – its founders Ramos de Azevedo and Paula Souza had to get their degrees in Europe – will have achieved a fine settlement of accounts with the past.