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Technological construction

Saint-Gobain establishes a research and development center in Brazil, focusing on materials science and building physics

Eduardo Cesar Test of new glass outside the R&D centerEduardo Cesar

Several panels for building exteriors are hung on one of the facades of the Saint-Gobain Research and Development (R&D) Center in Brazil, each one produced with a different formula. It is an experiment to check which of them is more resistant to sun, rain, humidity, cold and heat. Thus, the center’s own building is a vehicle for experiments and a showroom of technologies created by this industrial group that develops and manufactures building products and is headquartered in France. Saint-Gobain has been in Brazil for 80 years, but the center was inaugurated in 2016 in Capivari, 130 km from the city of São Paulo and near two cities with technological poles, Campinas and São Carlos. It is the company’s eighth research center worldwide—the others are located in France (three), the United States, India, Germany and China.

R&D center
Capivari (SP)
Number of researchers
Principal products
Glass, mortar, tiles, cement panels, pipes, ducts and abrasives

The center cost R$55 million and focuses on two lines of research: materials science and building physics. The first studies new materials that can perform better when applied to a product. Building physics studies and develops building systems that contribute to the energy efficiency of the building, providing more comfort to users, with lower energy expenditure. It seeks to reduce the environmental impact of products both in the production phase and in the construction and disposal phases.

The architecture of the R&D center favors large environments and was built with the company’s own materials and products, such as glass that blocks the infrared rays of the Sun and consequently make the environment more comfortable, reducing the need for air conditioning. In all, there are 3,000 square meters (m2) of floor space on a site measuring 40,000 m2, which house a total of 19 employees, 12 of which are researchers, a small number given the size of the laboratory.

The latest scientist to be hired was Brazilian chemical engineer Wang Shu Chen. After working with technology in companies manufacturing glues and adhesives, she set up her own company, Adespec, to produce a glue called Prego Líquido, and other products whose formulas do not include solvents or toxic products (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 119). In February 2017, Saint-Gobain acquired Adespec, which had already been granted funding through FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE), and Chen was invited to work at the R&D center. “Saint-Gobain’s invitation attracted me because of the big investment the company had just made in a well-equipped research center,” says Chen.

Eduardo Cesar Researcher at one of the company’s laboratories in Capivari, in upstate São PauloEduardo Cesar

The center was built to meet the technological demands of the companies in the Saint-Gobain group, including Weber, for mortar, Saint-Gobain Glass and Cebrace, for glass, Brasilit, for roofing and cement panels, PAM for pipes and ducts, and Norton for abrasives. “We deal with a variety of fields because we work in various business areas that use abrasive materials, glass, mortar, iron, wool and fiberglass,” explains Paul Houang, the company’s director of R&D. The objective is to solve technological problems and propose new materials for the technical areas of each unit. “The companies in the group are still getting to know the center and analyzing their needs,” says Houang, the son of Chinese immigrants who graduated from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) and has been with the company since 1986.

One of the center’s first projects was participating in a global company project focused on green chemistry, with the aim of replacing products derived from petroleum. “We work with lignin, a compound of vegetable fibers that can be used like resin to serve as a binder in the production of glass wool, which is used in lining and in abrasive tools,” explains chemical engineer Xavier Raby, a researcher at the center. “In addition to being a renewable source, production of the natural product has low CO2 emissions.”

Eduardo Cesar Glass and ceramic samples being analyzed in a fluorometerEduardo Cesar

Durability and comfort
The panels hung outside the building are part of an international study on products developed by the group abroad for buildings, involving various items related to durability, safety and comfort. “We tested which coating is more functional and better adapted to the climate,” says Houang. The company is developing new facade building systems with an underlying metallic structure, glass wool between the plates, and plaster to replace bricks.

Two houses were built on the premises, identical except for a new type of roofing insulation on one of them. It is an experiment to test the inside temperature in the houses, one with roofing insulation, the other with just roofing tiles. “Later, we’ll expand the study to other lining models. The data obtained will feed a simulation model of the thermal behavior of the different types of linings,” says Marcelo Meira, a building physics researcher.

Inside and outside the houses, under the paint of the outer wall, there are temperature and humidity sensors, whose data is analyzed at the center’s weather station. In this way, the degree of thermal comfort a resident would experience in relation to heat and cold is measured throughout the day. At the same time, the researchers are calculating the maximum temperature of one wall of the house painted a dark color and another painted a light color, which get sunshine all day. On a critical day, with a lot of sunlight, the dark wall reaches a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (°C) and the light wall reaches 50°C. Knowing this temperature is essential for the development of new mortar products, which have to withstand a temperature of 70°C. The same experiment is being carried out in India, Colombia and South Africa. “The goal is to insulate the house as much as possible from both heat and cold.”

Eduardo Cesar Glass plate on an X-ray diffractometer, used to analyze crystalline materialsEduardo Cesar

As part of research conducted by other company R&D centers, tests are being conducted with new, high-performance glass that has nanometric layers that reflect the sun’s rays. “The glass, developed in France, is being subjected to all kinds of weather to determine whether it can withstand the Brazilian climate, if it stains or fades,” says Houang.

Replacement for asbestos
Houang coordinated the company’s research in Brazil to replace the asbestos in Brasilit asbestos cement tiles. That mineral, mixed with cement formulations, was used in roof tiles and water tanks. Its production is problematic because workers inhale asbestos dust during product manufacturing and can develop asbestosis, a disease that obstructs and hardens the pulmonary alveoli, and which in many cases is fatal. Contamination can also occur when these products are broken up and disposed of.

“In 1997, asbestos was banned in France, but the group in Brazil continued employing the mineral. The contradiction caused the company to decide to also eliminate it from Brazilian products and in other countries, such as Mexico,” says Houang. In Brazil, there have been bills in the House of Representatives to ban asbestos since 1993, but its use is still legal. Six states have already prohibited it: Espírito Santo, Mato Grosso, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, and a seventh, Mato Grosso do Sul, had its law revoked by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) because the court felt that the subject matter fell under federal law. Objections to laws in other states are pending before the STF.

Eduardo Cesar Houses built on the grounds of the R&D center are used to test new linings designed to improve the thermal comfort of residentsEduardo Cesar

“We began to study replacing asbestos in Brasilit in April 1997, and in 2000 we were able to produce fiber cement tiles with a type of rigid polypropylene fiber in the form of synthetic yarn and wood pulp. It was six years later, in 2003, that all of our factories adapted and stopped using asbestos,” says Houang. In the end, the new tiles do not damage human health, but their cost is 15% greater.

The group had gross earnings of R$8.4 billion in Brazil in 2016. Globally, Saint-Gobain produces an average of 350 patents per year and has 3,700 people working in R&D in the eight centers. It also has partnerships with universities and research centers. “Prior to building R&D centers, many of the company’s units had joint projects with universities, such as one in which we participated with Poli-USP through a consortium of construction companies that study mortar.” It also has projects with the University of Campinas (Unicamp), Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), São Paulo State University (Unesp) Araraquara, and the USP Engineering School of Lorena.

“Now that the center is ready, we plan to expand our interactions with universities,” says Houang. Saint-Gobain has two agreements with the UFSCar Ceramics group in Vinhedo, São Paulo State. The group of materials engineer Victor Carlos Pandolfelli, a professor in the Materials Department, uses the agreement to allow materials engineering undergraduate students intern for six months in Vinhedo and, now, at the center in Capivari. Master’s and PhD students can spend another six months in one of the company’s R&D centers in France. “It is a way for the student, who is supervised both by us and a company employee, to experience working in a factory environment,” explains Pandolfelli. “We also have specific projects with the company. They are good when the cost-benefit ratio is positive for the company and includes our students.” Pandolfelli reiterates that the Capivari center is new and only time will tell how many of the innovations developed in Brazil will be incorporated into products by headquarters in France.