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José Augusto Penteado Aranha

José Augusto Penteado Aranha: Wave engineer

Studies on the dynamics of marine currents and floating structures have resulted in solutions for deep water oil extraction

LÉO RAMOSAfter earning an undergraduate degree in civil engineering, São Paulo native José Augusto Penteado Aranha spent 40 years working in the field of marine hydrodynamics, studying waves, ocean currents and their relationships with vessels, oil platforms and oil pipelines that connect those structures to wells at the bottom of the sea. He acquired a taste for the field while pursuing his master’s and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  “Fluid mechanics and marine hydrodynamics are open fields that have many applications in other areas,” Aranha explains.  He led groups at the São Paulo Institute for Technological Research (IPT) from 1978 to 1989 before going to Poli-USP.  He was among the first involved in studies regarding the behavior and relationship of waves to oil platforms, vessels and risers, the pipes that carry oil and gas to the surface.  In this way, he contributed to Petrobras’ oil exploration in waters deeper than 400 meters (m) in the mid-1980s, reaching ultra-deep waters at depths of more than 1,000 m in the 1990s. This capacity extended into the pre-salt layer beginning in 2008.

Aranha has dedicated himself to developing an analytical method that enables consistent and economic estimation of the useful life of risers. The relationship between currents and risers leads to the alternating formation of vortices, which generate tension on the system and could lead to rupture of the pipes. When this occurs, oil and gas leak into the sea, causing catastrophic damage to the environment and significant financial losses.

In his studies of mathematical modeling, he developed a formula for calculating the interaction of waves and ocean currents with oil platforms and vessels that became known as the Aranha Formula. It is used to calculate wave drift damping in deep waters.  Even though his equation is now found in science manuals and despite his contribution to the oil industry, Aranha does not really like to talk about himself. “It’s hard to, without saying something ridiculous,” he says. Married to artist Carmen Sylvia Guimaraes Aranha of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) at USP with whom he has two children, Aranha is close to retirement, at age 67.  He plans to continue his studies on wave dynamics and ocean currents.  In recent years, he has been a vocal critic of the teaching of engineering.  He does not agree with learning that focuses on utilitarianism, and instead advocates for a broad view in which students can discover ways of thinking that will lead to scientific development(s).

Fluid mechanics and maritime hydrodynamics
Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) in 1971. Master’s and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 1973-1978
Scientific output
30 articles, two books (as yet unpublished). Advised 12 master’s candidates and five PhD candidates

You graduated in civil engineering and then dedicated yourself to marine hydrodynamics. Are the fields very different?
I was not a very motivated student while at Poli. In my fourth year, I concluded that I’d probably end up doing some bureaucratic job. So, I started to study what I’d always liked – the more theoretical part of mathematics and physics.  In the beginning, I was interested in mathematical modeling of structures and when I got to the United States to do my master’s, I realized that fluid mechanics was a more interesting field because it is wide open, and has potential applications in other areas.

Is fluid mechanics an area of undergraduate physics that you also took courses in?
It’s in applied physics. It has important interfaces and many physicists work with fluid mechanics, precisely because it is still an open field.  I didn’t complete the physics program.  I took two years of night classes, in parallel with my engineering program, because at the time you could do that.  I was also aware of the challenges Petrobras was facing.  During my stay at MIT, I already knew that one of Brazil’s potential fields would be oil exploration.

So you graduated and were hired by IPT?
I was at IPT and times were different.  I graduated in 1971, and now I tell my students that despite the adverse political climate at the time, Brazil believed in itself and the possibilities for work were much more open than they are now.  When I interviewed at IPT, the interviewer asked me: “What do you want to do at IPT?”  “I want to travel and study abroad.”  And this did not take me out of contention for the job because the perception was that people needed to be sent abroad.  The IPT had a program for investing in researchers and the only prerequisite was having completed one’s master’s degree.  But I didn’t want to do my master’s here.  I used my own savings to travel, and that was just enough to spend six months in the U.S. I was convinced that at the end of the day, IPT would fund me, and it ended up funding the four years of doctoral studies.  In the fifth year, I worked as a researcher at MIT, while Carmen finished up part of her doctorate at Boston University. That was a problem because they thought I didn’t want to come back, but that never occurred to me.  I never thought about living in the United States as a foreigner.

You formed a group that gave us the scientific basis for IPT’s naval engineering, right?
No. Sometimes my sister would describe my father to people and he would say: “That’s someone else’s father, not me.” From time to time our friends describe us and we don’t recognize ourselves in the description.  It’s as if they were talking about another person.  It’s impossible to do anything without a group working together.

Personal archives Aranha, in November 1973, while pursuing his PhD at MITPersonal archives

You spent a year at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) right? What year was that?
It was six months in 1987, using some bonus vacation time I had. They were having structural problems in building the satellite and they called on me.  The problems were complicated but they had a professor from Poli, Gaspar Ricardo, who was a very well-qualified engineer and he’d already found the solution they were looking for.

Did it pertain to the satellites’ orbit?
It was in the department of orbital engineering, I don’t quite remember the name, but it was related to the physical structure of the satellite, because there were some vibrations and a series of things like that, so it was really an engineering job.  It was the first Brazilian satellite, but then it was dismantled so I don’t know how things ended up. Later I was named to the board of the Brazilian Space Agency.  Actually, that was kind of an interesting story, because since I had a PhD from MIT, I was contacted about becoming the director of INPE.  But I didn’t feel comfortable accepting the position.  That wasn’t my field and I didn’t think I would be able to provide the necessary leadership.

After INPE you went back to USP?  
Full-time, and then I went to the Naval Engineering Department where I spent several years that were very good personally and professionally.

And you led another naval engineering group, correct?
I took part with others in some important projects.  I was the head of the department when they started working on the numerical test tank [computer system inaugurated in 2002 to simulate the behavior of deep-water production platforms].  Petrobras, which funded the project, thought that I should head up the tank, but I declined.  It wasn’t a question of technical competence, but rather of style.  They needed to have someone who had a lot of political contacts and I don’t really like that sort of thing, although I think it’s necessary.  Throughout my career, including at INPE, part of my institutional contribution – if I can say that I made such a contribution – were my absences. It was a case of declining something that I knew I was not going to like.

With regard to oil exploration, how was your first contact with Petrobras? How did you get into that field?
IPT already had extensive contact with Petrobras. During the 1980s, it was IPT that led Brazil’s naval engineering program, more so than COPPE [Institute for Graduate Studies and Engineering Research at UFRJ). When I got to USP in 1989, and there had already been contacts with the company, we started to strengthen this partnership and kept in touch with Petrobras so that it would maintain a continuous flow of projects in order for us to develop capability in Brazil.  Somehow, it provided the department with nearly R$1 million per year, in today’s currency, for several research projects.

What were Petrobras’ requirements when looking to academia?
The main problem was with the open sea floating production system as well as the riser designs, which represented nearly one-third of the semi-submersible platform budget.  There’s wear and tear, interaction problems with the ocean current, with movements of floating bodies [semi-submersible platforms and systems], not to mention the FPSO vessels [floating, production, storage and offloading], which store and unload oil.  These are huge structures that float on waves, and it is not just the riser but the floating system itself that needs to be anchored there.  Another aspect involves the vessels that come into the area and work with the platform: we need to know the relative movement between the two, the waves…

And where does mathematics come in?
In the mathematical modeling of the systems and the connection between the parts.  Modeling here means translating physical reality into equations.

Measuring waves and ocean currents?
There was some information available, but we needed to put together models that represented that and we verified the models through testing in the IPT wave tank. It was an interesting time.

So the first riser was installed in 1998?  What was that like?
It was the first rigid riser because up to that time, risers had been flexible and not suited to deep waters.  Then you have the problem of useful life, fatigue, because of the oscillation of the sea and the ocean current itself.  Generally, this oscillation doesn’t break the riser, but it wears it down because of the considerable fatigue.  It’s like taking a wire and twisting it – after a while, it breaks.  So we need to carefully quantify this type of thing because, besides environmental and operational reasons, there is also a question of accident insurance: the more imprecise our calculations to demonstrate proper system operation, the higher the insurance premium.

And Petrobras succeeded in becoming a leader in this field?
The company is scientifically well-regarded at the oil production and geophysics levels.  I had my doubts about that, but took part in some workshops with people from abroad and they spoke very highly of Petrobras in these areas.

Did you end up making any recommendations to Petrobras for PROCAP (Technological Development Program for Deepwater Production)?
We did something that is not acknowledged.  I was still at IPT when a group from there – including me – wanted to do a strategic research plan for Petrobras. We came up with a series of projects, scheduled a meeting with the president of Cenpes [Petrobras Research Center], Guilherme Estrella, and everyone was impressed with the project.  Then the issue was somewhat tabled until PROCAP came along in 1986, and that sparked some techno-scientific policy discussion inside Petrobras.

What exactly did you propose?
A comprehensive research plan.  Defined projects mainly in the field of naval engineering.  Also in platforms, long-term studies, beyond five years, to be able to really create things, because it wasn’t enough to have a six-month project, to hire people and then lay them off.  That was our idea, as was thinking about going more into the research side rather than the service provision side.  We thought we could get a more interesting return.  The ideas were really well-received inside Petrobras, but then there was nothing, and then came PROCAP and our work was never mentioned again.

Were pre-salt operations a result of the company’s technological competence? 
Petrobras is very competent in many areas, such as geophysics, and it has a high percentage of hits when it comes to successful oil exploration. It also has very competent employees.  I remember a workshop I went to in Angra dos Reis, attended by Norwegians, Americans, French and English.  There were some people from Petrobras, and very few from academia. A basic question came up about the mooring lines they had been using, which were all twisted and no one knew if they would last for the 20 years they were projected to last. A Norwegian fellow, in his presentation, talked about line tests and wasn’t very clear how to extrapolate the line’s behavior in terms of the twisting.  After some discussion, the engineer José Formigli, who later became director of Petrobras, said to the audience: “We’ve already resolved this problem: we’ve performed our calculations and instead of 20 years, we’re going to replace the cables every five years from now on and be done with it.” And everyone just looked at him, baffled by such a simple solution.  Later I joked with Formigli: “It’s true, when it comes to chaotic brainstorming, we’re unbeatable.” But I also thought that the Norwegian could have run the tests and then developed a line that would become part of an innovative cable that could be sold all over the world. I don’t know if he ever managed to do that, but I bet he spent a long time testing the line.

What is Aranha’s Formula? How did it come about and what were its repercussions?
It didn’t require a lot of calculations, just getting some known physics concepts right.  There is a certain type of interaction between a wave and an ocean current that presents a reduction or an increase in movement, depending on the relative direction, that has to be taken into account when you need to analyze these bodies.  The phenomenon had been discovered through experiments.  I imagined a certain physical situation and from that, inferred that there had to be a    closed formula that is dependent on the routinely calculated drift coefficient. I showed that the inferred formula was mathematically precise in the underlying theoretical context, and later, Petrobras funded an experiment at IPT that corroborated the results. And that became Aranha’s formula.

I have found theses, including citations outside Brazil, that focus their studies on your formula.
It became public knowledge. I published it in 1994 and it has become part of the field of oceanography, in the study of ocean currents and floating bodies.  I’m happy with that accomplishment. I think it was the most original thing I’ve ever done.

Why is the study of waves so interesting? 
I think it’s really interesting to take, for example, an equation such as that for refraction, which explains why the ocean’s waves break in parallel to the coastline, and know that the equation provides, on the one hand, Snell’s Law from the 17th century and on the other hand, Schrödinger’s equation from 20th century quantum mechanics.  I think it’s important to have a complete overview, a theory that is not in itself limited.  Engineering addresses many interesting problems, but they are often so focused that they become sterile. Engineering doesn’t seem to care much about the taste for knowledge.

Why is that?
Engineering schools, especially those in Brazil, still meet specific demands, so much so that the field of research in Brazilian engineering has a broad interface with the provision of services.  We’re living in difficult times, where thought is no longer in fashion.  Today what’s interesting to folks are facts, photos and a lot of information.  Hypotheses and conjectures have been put on the sidelines, yet as Novalis said, “hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch,” a sentence that is nearly incomprehensible nowadays.  Hypotheses and conjectures have not disappeared; they’ve just fallen out of fashion and I think that one day they’ll be back.

Do we need to have a more scientific outlook?
Science is by and large a discussion about order, but this order, in most cases, is not very clear.  You have to look for it deep within phenomena.  Engineering schools ignore this search.  For them all that matters is the end result.  The Pythagorean Theorem is not taught in primary school because the student is going to be a surveyor, so he is taught a little Plato without knowing that he’s learning about Plato. But the way it is taught is completely wrong; the theorem ends up being an end in itself and the student, instead of playing around with triangles, his imagination and the rigor of logic, is instead made to memorize the proof because that is what he will be graded on.

Do students play a critical role in this?
It’s the schools’ fault. Engineering schools should be “schools” first.  Scholars say there are two issues in education: one is the transmission of knowledge and the other, which everyone proclaims in poetry and prose and then turns it into something operational, is student empowerment.  I think – and this is the point I’m talking about, rather unsuccessfully, I might add – that empowerment is woven into the threads of the journey of discovery, and not the discovery itself.  As I see it, I don’t care that mass attracts mass: what I care about is knowing how, from Copernicus to Newton, we arrived at this discovery and how it became the magical solution. Copernicus was a canon and, faced with the confusing orbit of Mars seen from Earth, he ended up squeezed between two scholastic dogmas: order and geocentrism.  Intuitively, he chose order, which is not a priori evident because it displaced the center to the Sun using a simple rationale:  the Sun describes a circle when seen from Earth and our planet also describes a circle in relation to the Sun, therefore it is definitely a fixed orbit.  Then came Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and that’s how physics began.

Was your training different?
It wasn’t different, perhaps it was more critical.  I often hear in mechanical engineering that “an engineer needs to know what a hydraulic pump is.” But why? Why clog up a student’s mind with abacuses and calculations if, at the first shake of the head, it all slips out and he forgets everything?  If the student is trained well, in a month, he can learn all there is to know about the topic at school.  Every so often I feel that engineering schools – although they always say they want to change – can’t seem to get out of their own way.  I would go so far as to say that the time it takes to change something in engineering is geological: it is very slow. We live in a culture that was forged by people with needs and wants from another time. During the 1940s, engineering in Brazil was almost like a scout’s survival kit because an engineer had to go into the forest, he needed to know a little about hydraulics, electricity, construction, etc.  He needed know all of that, but that’s no longer the case.

How should it be today?
We need to have organized information and be able to make intelligent connections, the synapses, with other fields.  In schools, there are a ton of disciplines that don’t talk to each other.  It’s impossible for the normal human mind to leave a class on management, go to quantum mechanics, then logistics, then linear algebra, then screw design … and everything taught is deemed necessary.  How do you organize a thought?   I read a very interesting article on phenomenology written by the German philosopher Husserl. Imagine a hunk of wood. There’s nothing more solid than this and yet, we can never see what’s inside it: it is the continuous movement of our eyes and the meshing of the different views that forms our “notion of the hunk.”  If this is true for a hunk of wood, imagine how it is for a more abstract thought! We need to take our time with the thing, build it, from the inside out, from the side.  The development of a culture – which is not learning, but rather, what’s left after information is lost through forgetting – demands a repetition of themes in connected areas so that the look – the thought – wanders through the phenomena, that these different views are made compatible and synthesized into a concept that, when it appears, is a discovery. This dimension of allure is lost these days, when in the name of pseudo-transparency, we can only understand what is quantified.

Isn’t this type of instruction a sign of our times in which everything has to be fast and we need to know a little about everything? 
Added to this is the fact that today – in particular – computing and all the technology become obsolete in five years.  The function of engineering schools, however, is not to become a prisoner to cutting-edge technology, because technology is already born neo-obsolete.   We need to learn the basic structures of thought because these are what last forever.  The changes proposed in our schools come with the international stamp and then they’re gone without our knowing why.  Reengineering has already gone by the wayside today, or even yesterday.  What’s in fashion now is entrepreneurship, innovation and governance.  The question is: what competence do we have to talk about entrepreneurship if we’re inside the university?  If innovation is what you want, why not go to science – it has actual innovations – and understand how this interface came to be. If during one’s youth, a person has no time to admire the adventure of knowledge, to become enamored with it, if the university doesn’t show him or the student doesn’t want to see it, something is lost.  You might end up earning a lot of money, but, as I constantly remind my students to no avail, “the goal in life is not to maximize profits, but to minimize tedium.” School is, or should be, an entry to life, not just training for a job.

What can be done about it?
We shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that we’re a recent culture.  Brazil is a country with tremendous qualities.  We have to have international interaction – we can’t close ourselves off, isolate ourselves on an island.  I’m in favor of internationalization but just up to a certain point.  A researcher needs to take some time to be with himself and think about things, about his obsessions, because if he doesn’t do this, nothing will come of it. If all he does is collaborate on international studies of what others are doing abroad, he gets citations but never independence.

So, there needs to be a local theme?
Not just local. In other countries, while some folks are playing around with internationalization, there is a solid core of people that is studying and continuing to do the basic things.  Here there isn’t: we throw things around helter-skelter, or to put it differently, towards the basket everyone is trying to make, because the risk is lower.  If you ask me if I’m against internationalization, I say “no.”  But I think we need to develop a domestic culture of thinking.  It’s clear that for researchers who are not in a major research center, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a work cited than if he were from MIT, for example.  But I don’t believe that a “peripheral country” becomes “major” because of the number of citations one has together with researchers from larger centers: it becomes “major” for the set of original contributions it can generate and whether this production is recognized as its own and not from the originator.  We shouldn’t be ashamed of the stage we’re in.  We have to fight to move forward, making mistakes and getting things right.  One of the basic things that came out of my time at MIT – a good school with out-of-this-world marketing – was to realize that those authors that I read there were people just like me: they make mistakes, say and do stupid things, because that is human nature. Engineering schools treat errors as almost character defects.

You grew up in a large family with six children.  Was your father a professor as well? 
No, he was a surgeon, although he would have liked to be one and tried to do so, but he had seven children.  We’ve been fortunate; my family is happy, and we all have a great sense of humor.  I studied at the Colégio Santa Cruz with Father Charbonneau, who was an enthusiastic teacher with good ideas.  There I also had a wonderful math teacher who let us prove our theorems.

Do you think you’ve established a school of applied mathematics and oceanographic engineering here at USP?   
I don’t think I’ve established a school. And, not to put myself down, but I think that Brazil has a long way to go in this area, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the other hand, and this works in our favor, I think this is a construct that if truly done right and taken seriously in the broadest sense of science in Brazil, good things will come of it.  May-be not next year, but in 30 or 50 years. We need to persevere.