Saturday, January 22, 2011

THE DIVERGING PATHS OF SCIENCE IN U.S. AND BRAZIL

Blogger: Cuckoos in the Congress and the White House are toying with sacrificing U.S. science to the false gods of deficit reduction. The government of Brazil is proving itself to be a heck of a lot smarter.


Science 26 November 2010:
Vol. 330 no. 6008 p. 1155
DOI: 10.1126/science.1200554

EDITORIAL:

Protect U.S. Science Funding

Alan I. Leshner

(Summary)

The recent power shift in the U.S. Congress reflects in part the public's desire to get the U.S. economy quickly back on track and the federal budget under better control. In recognition, both the Obama Administration and the Republican Party leadership are considering significant budget reductions. These could result in 5 to 10% (or greater) cuts in R&D allocations for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The consequences would be severe. Federal agencies, which often commit their funds years in advance but only pay them out in later years, would have little left for new and competing renewal grants. Agencies could see funding success rates fall to below 1 in 10 applications, and new investigators—the seeds of the future—could be hit even harder. These kinds of budget cuts work against the ultimate national goals of restoring the U.S. economy and its international prowess. It is well documented that science, engineering, and technology fuel innovation and economic growth. That is why virtually all competitor countries, including India, China, and Korea, are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development, and education. U.S. funding looks like it could be heading in the opposite direction.


Science 3 December 2010:
Vol. 330 no. 6009 pp. 1308-1309
DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6009.1308

National oil company Petrobras inaugurated a $700 million research center in Rio
News Focus | Science in Brazil

Tapping a Deep, 'Pre-Salt' Bounty

Antonio Regalado

Three years ago, a drill bit struck immense oil deposits deep off the coast of Brazil. Petrobras, the national oil company, tapped undersea fields now estimated to hold about 80 billion barrels of oil and natural gas—about three times the size of the reservoir under Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It brought the promise of new wealth and expectations that Brazil will climb to the world's top rung of achievement in science and technology.

Pres. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva celebrates the “second independence” oil discoveries will give Brazil.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once termed the oil strike “a second independence for Brazil” and promised to use the oil revenue for education and public health. But Brazil's R&D sector has been first to benefit. This October, Petrobras inaugurated a sprawling new $700 million research center in Rio de Janeiro. At the event, da Silva, a former union leader with a fourth-grade education, left no doubt what the vast R&D complex represents to him: “Brazil will never have to lower its head to anyone again,” he roared to a boisterous crowd of oil workers.

Deep-water petroleum exploration is Brazil's largest technology project, and Petrobras's money is pouring into research labs throughout the country. In order to retrieve the oil, which lies a daunting 7 kilometers below the ocean surface, Petrobras has opened a fire hose of funding that is “changing the face of science in Brazil,” says Angela Uller, dean for research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, whose campus on an island outside the city also houses Petrobras's R&D Center, known as Cenpes.

Petrobras now spends about $1 billion a year on R&D, including some $225 million that goes directly to universities, for which Petrobras has been rushing to outfit laboratories, erect new geophysics centers, and train a new generation of engineers. “We want to transform the technological capabilities of Brazil and help build university labs equal to any in the world,” says Carlos Tadeu da Costa Fraga, head of Petrobras R&D operations.

Rio's engineering school, known as COPPE, is the biggest single beneficiary of the oil gusher. Petrobras has paid for the construction of numerous laboratories on campus, including the world's deepest wave pool, used to test automobile-sized models of oil platforms. “It's starting to look like Dubai around here,” says Segen Farid Estefen, a director of COPPE, which gets about $60 million a year from Petrobras. He says the industry-academic complex on the island is the “largest offshore oil research cluster in the world.”

Petrobras, founded in 1947, began to follow the scent of oil offshore in the mid-1970s, investing in R&D to extend its reach. Brazil was importing equipment from the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and adapting it to tropical conditions. But Brazil's decision to pump its own oil demanded growing investment in R&D.

“You cannot simply cut and paste,” says Martin Landrø, deputy chair of petroleum engineering and applied geophysics at the Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Universitet in Trondheim, Norway. “You have to build up competence, and the easiest way to do that is to build up research. You have to bite the apple, so to speak.”

Landrø, who has visited Brazil three times to give courses to Petrobras geophysicists, says he's noticed an accelerating change in Brazil. “They have maneuvered from the position of being not so competent to being on the cutting edge in 10 years,” says Landrø.

Petrobras, the world's largest deep-water oil producer, is reaching depths where experience is scarce or nonexistent. At the Laboratory for Non-Destructive Testing, Corrosion and Soldering, for instance, four COPPE professors work alongside 30 Petrobras engineers to submit steel to corrosive hydrogen sulfide gas at extreme pressures. “At 7000 meters [below sea level], we don't have any information about how materials perform, or how long they can last,” says Oscar Rosa Mattos, director of the lab, which Petrobras paid $30 million to build in 2008. “My foreign visitors are surprised when they encounter a facility like this in Brazil.”

The superdeep petroleum deposits now being discovered are in the “pre-salt” zone, an area where organic matter was deposited 125 million years ago and later encased beneath thick layers of salt. These are “a new kind of geologic play. They are new types of reservoirs and there are lots of things being learned,” says William Fisher, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin. One critical difficulty is spotting the oil reservoirs beneath the salt domes, frequently over a kilometer thick; seismic signals are hard to interpret. “As far as the potential discoveries—what is the potential volume of oil and gas—well, you can hazard all kinds of guesses, but it's going to be big,” says Fisher.

Estefen hopes that Brazil's exploration of the ocean does not stop at oil. He says the country could use its deep-water expertise to be at the forefront of wave energy and undersea communications, too. “The analogy I use is that deep-sea exploration can do in Brazil what the space race did for the United States,” Estefen says. “If Brazil only pumps oil, it would be a big loss.”

2 comments:

DIYer said...

80 billion barrels of oil and natural gas

Or less than 2.5 years' supply for the world, at the current burn rate. We only need another Petrobras find every couple of years for a constant supply. More if we want the exponential ramp to continue.

(it looks like more of an exponential decay to me, though)

DIYer said...

Or as Bucky Fuller used to say, "It's like burning the Mona Lisa to heat the Louvre."

As for the science thing, I had my hopes up in 2008 that we were bringing a new regime into power -- smart leadership that would have some respect for science and knowledge. But by now it's obviously just a continuation of the Cheney junta with a new public facade.