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The chemistry of innovation

Araraquara institute excels among Unesp units in applied science and business partnerships

AbreUnespThe Araraquara Chemistry Institute (IQ) is recognized as a model in the application of science and innovation among São Paulo State University (Unesp) units. Research on new materials – some conducted in partnership with businesses – and studies on the chemistry of natural products have expanded scientific production and broadened the international profile of the Institute, whose roots lie in the opening of rural São Paulo’s first undergraduate chemistry course, in the 1960s. “Over the course of our history, we also reached the critical mass necessary to ensure the excellence of our graduate program in chemistry, which stands on equal footing with the programs at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the University of Campinas (Unicamp),” says Leonardo Pezza, current IQ director.

The 1988 creation of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Electrochemistry and Ceramics (LIEC) was a catalyst for the Institute’s experience with new materials. LIEC was born of a partnership between the team led by physicist José Arana Varela, IQ professor, and two colleagues, Elson Longo and Luiz Otávio Bulhões, then at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). The laboratory specialized in the development of materials like clay for dishes and handicrafts, steel industry furnace linings, flooring, tiles, sensors, and semiconductors.  “I was working with pharmaceuticals, and José Arana Varela turned me into a brickmaker. I went to LIEC to work with ceramics,” recalls Elson Longo, referring to the Chief Executive Officer of the FAPESP Executive Board and his friend for more than 60 years, who passed away on May 17, 2016.

With offices at Unesp and UFSCar, LIEC forged partnerships with dozens of companies and, to name a case in point, has developed linings and materials for the steel industry. Its collaboration with the steelmaker Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN) has spawned over 40 projects encompassing new processes and the development of refractories. One of numerous examples is the use of a refractory lining made of magnesium and carbon in so-called torpedo cars, which transport the molten pig iron removed from blast furnaces. Reliance on this material reduced heat loss during transportation and allowed for the near doubling of the amount transported. Another partnership – this one with Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Metais (CBMM), a mining and production firm – facilitated construction of the LIEC building. The laboratory has worked in collaboration with such companies as White Martins and Faber-Castell, as well as groups of small and medium-sized industries in the ceramics parks of towns like Porto Ferreira, Santa Gertrudes, and Pedreira, all in São Paulo. “Thanks to our relations with industry, we’ve obtained funding and have been able to buy sophisticated equipment. This put us in a position to conduct high-level research and cultivate good cooperative relationships with international groups,” says Elson Longo, who left UFSCar nine years ago and joined the IQ in Araraquara, where he had received his undergraduate degree in the 1960s. LIEC also enjoys a strong reputation in scientific production. The latest edition of the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities listed the most-cited Brazilian scientists, according to Google Scholar Citations (GSC), Google’s academic indexer. Elson Longo and José Arana Varela took second and third places in number of citations among Unesp researchers, outranked only by physicist Sérgio Novaes of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, who works with the Large Hadron Collider, an international project based in France. Across Brazil as a whole, Longo is the 25th most-cited researcher and Varela, the 35th.

40-year history of Unesp
A diverse university
Biodiversity in rural São Paulo
From Trieste to São Paulo

In 2001, researchers with ties to LIEC were awarded funding under the first call for proposals for Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs), a FAPESP program that provides financing for up to 11 years for teams of researchers who are working on the cutting edge of science and aspiring to transfer technology to society and the productive sector. Under the second call for RIDC proposals, in 2013, the Multidisciplinary Center for the Development of Ceramic Materials  was reshaped to become the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials, which focuses on nanostructured materials, tailored to solve problems related to energy, health, and the environment.

Another prominent line of research at the Chemistry Institute involves the Photonic Materials Laboratory (LAMF). The group began in 1994, thanks to a partnership between two chemists: Sidney Ribeiro, who had just finished his doctorate, and Younès Messaddeq, a French-trained Moroccan who was doing post-doctoral work in São Carlos. Both are now professors at the IQ. One of the milestones at the laboratory was the arrival of equipment that can make optical fibers, donated in 1998 by the Telebrás Center for Research and Development in Telecommunications (CPqD), located in Campinas. “It was wonderful for our group, because it allowed us to become part of a world-class research community,” says Ribeiro. The team currently works with natural polymers, optical fibers, and thin films, as well as luminescent markers for medicine. In 2005, the laboratory developed a type of vitreous material, produced with a high concentration of tungsten oxide, which can store information in three dimensions (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 112). Another LAMF research project recently yielded a scientific paper on the development of a flexible light-emitting device whose raw material is composed of two polymers derived from natural sources: cellulose produced by bacteria and polyurethane; the innovation has the potential for application in computer screens. The study was conducted in collaboration with Agnieszka Tercjak, a researcher at the University of the Basque Country.

The group has a strong presence on the world stage. Professor Younès Messaddeq left Unesp in 2010 to head up a laboratory at Laval University in Canada. An agreement between Unesp and the Canadian institution transformed LAMF into a mixed research unit. “We have three students in Canada right now,” says Ribeiro. “Our group has already trained 100 master’s and doctoral students. We have 40 people at present, including undergraduate researchers, master’s and doctoral candidates, and post-doctoral interns,” he says.

Chemistry Institute facility...

Unesp Public Domain Image Chemistry Institute facility…Unesp Public Domain Image

The IQ traces its origins to the establishment, in the 1960s, of the Chemistry Department at the Araraquara School of Science, Language and Letters, founded by the São Paulo state government in 1957 as a standalone institute of higher education, known at that time as the School of Philosophy, Science, and Language and Letters. A key figure there was chemist Waldemar Saffioti (1922-1999), then a professor and researcher at USP who had earned renown as the author of high-school chemistry textbooks. After the school hired him in 1961 for its newly created professorship in Physical Chemistry and Higher Chemistry, Saffioti put together what would be rural São Paulo’s first chemistry program. “He was a trailblazer. The professors at USP – which was then the only institution in the state that offered an undergraduate degree in chemistry – looked somewhat askance at the opening of the Araraquara program,” says Leonardo Pezza, current IQ director. “Back then, Araraquara had electric buses, but they didn’t go as far as the Chemistry Department. Professor Saffioti would often take students out there in his DKW station wagon,” he states.

The stated goal was to train chemistry teachers to work in education, where there was a dearth of professionals; chemistry classes were often taught by pharmacists, physicians, or engineers. In these early days, faculty members at the department were a mix of USP researchers recruited by Saffioti (the case of chemical engineer Rubens Molinari) and foreign professors, like Denise and Jean Pierre Gastmans, from Belgium, and Manuel Molina, from Spain.

In the mid-1960s, the first graduates of the program helped reinforce the department faculty, which soon turned to research as well. One of the forerunners was Professor Vicente Toscano, hired in 1967 to teach organic chemistry after he completed his doctorate at Johannes Gutenberg University, in Mainz, Germany, and returned to Brazil. Drawing from his experience in Europe, Toscano suggested that the professors conduct research projects involving topics from the scientific literature and offer students internships at department laboratories. In 1964, in the midst of a rivalry fueled by the allocation of available funding, the Chemistry Department split off from other programs at the school, physically speaking, and moved to a facility in the neighborhood of Quitandinha. After Unesp was established in 1976, it became an institute with its own administrative structure. Two years later, the doors of its graduate program were opened, divided into different fields of chemistry. In the 1990s, Professor José Arana Varela became program coordinator and proposed a reform. “Instead of having a number of fragmented lines of research, we came together as a single graduate program in chemistry, with greater substance,” said Varela in an interview given in February 2016 as part of the first installment in this series of reports.

...and ceramic material developed by the Center for the Development of Functional Materials (previous page): partnerships with businesses and collaboration with foreign researchers

Unesp Public Domain Image …and ceramic material developed by the Center for the Development of Functional Materials: partnerships with businesses and collaboration with foreign researchersUnesp Public Domain Image

At different moments in its history, the IQ skillfully brought together teams of researchers in areas where it had no experience and provided them with the support needed to gain firm ground. In the late 1970s, for example, two former students of chemist and USP professor, Otto Gottlieb – one of Brazil’s pioneers in the chemistry of natural products – met in Araraquara and envisioned the formation of a research group dedicated to the topic. Ligia Maria Vettorato Trevisan was a professor at the IQ and Vanderlan Bolzani had just been hired by the Araraquara School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, also attached to Unesp. “Ligia wanted support for research on natural products at the Organic Chemistry Department, and she suggested that I move to the IQ,” recalls Bolzani, who transferred to the Institute, where she has worked for 40 years. Bolzani first devoted herself to research in the field of chemotaxonomy, which classifies plants according to their biochemical composition, and this allowed her to publish scientific papers even before there was a solid laboratory infrastructure. When Lúcia Xavier Lopes was hired (now retired), the women formed a trio of professors who worked to lay a foundation in natural product research. Bolzani and another professor, Maysa Furlan, later spent time in the United States doing post-doctoral work. “Even though the faculty wasn’t very big, Maysa and I had the backing of Unesp when we went abroad,” says the researcher, whose studies centered on finding substances that display pharmacological activity among species of Brazilian Rubiaceae, the plant family to which coffee belongs.

Today the group has six researchers who are responsible for the Center for Natural Products Bioassays, Biosynthesis, and Eco-physiology (NuBBE), which has identified and analyzed over 640 chemical compounds extracted from Brazilian biodiversity and has described them in over 250 scientific papers. This experience qualified Bolzani to head the São Paulo State Bioprospecting Network (BIOprospecTA), one of the branches of the Biota-FAPESP Area Panel of Special Programs, created in 1999 to map diversity in the state of São Paulo. BIOprospecTA is an initiative aimed at developing pharmacological models and other products from plant, fungus, and marine organism extracts. Bolzani is now director of the Unesp Innovation Agency, founded by the university in 2009 to oversee policies to protect and license the intellectual property produced by the faculty.

This is the fourth in a series of reports on the 40-year history of São Paulo State University – Unesp

1. CDMF – Center for the Development of Functional Materials (nº 2013/07296-2); Grant Mechanism Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC); Principal Investigator Elson Longo (Chemistry Institute, Unesp); Investment R$20,913,320.27 (for the entire project).
2. Multifunctional hybrid materials based on bacterial cellulose (nº 2014/24692-1); Grant Mechanism Research Grant – Visiting Researcher Grant – International – Agnieszka Tercjak; Principal Investigator Sidney José Lima Ribeiro (Chemistry Institute, Unesp); Investment R$45,756.20.