Now it has become a major oil and gas producer, Brazil is hosting a new generation of research activities to optimize carbon-based energy use, with an eye to both sustainability and economic efficiency.
A number of research bases sponsored by the oil majors have sprung up in recent years, of which the latest is the Shell-sponsored New Energies Research Center (NERC). Its initial call for proposal for scientific projects, worth US$16.7 million over five years, closed June 9th.
At a time when budgets for pure academic research are under high stress not only in Brazil but around the world (see article on Brazil’s budget cutbacks), the energy industry provides one of the few “gushers” left for budget-starved academics seeking continuity in funding. Brazilian researchers get a chance to access the global research activities of an oil major – and perhaps find new career opportunities.
Scientists around the world were invited to submit proposals to NERC that would eventually help the oil industry to develop new energy carriers, which are low cost, dense, abundant and clean; and to open new pathways to economically and sustainably convert methane gas into products.
Previously, Shell (via its Brazil subsidiary BG E&P Brasil) announced the outlines of its New Energies Research Center in partnership with the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), its funding partner.
The Center will be funded by both organizations and will prioritize research capable of unlocking business opportunities by exploring technological challenges relating to the development of new, low-cost, abundant and clean energy carriers, as well as new and sustainable economic routes to convert methane into chemical products.
To achieve these objectives, the Center will comprise four research divisions: dense energy carriers; advanced energy storage; methane to product conversion; and computational materials science. Proposals submitted in June are now under international peer review to assess can best deliver the NERC vision with positive and sustainable societal impact and achieve worldwide recognition for its research into new energies sciences. NERC’s long-term plan also includes contributing to the development of Bachelor, Master’s level and vocational training for new entrants and employees pursuing education and careers in new energies fields.
Each research division may be hosted by a different university or research institution. Alternatively, a host institution may accommodate up to four research divisions. The NERC initiative plays to FAPESP’s strengths as a partner with strong industry contacts.
The institution already supports five Engineering Research Centers in partnership with Peugeot-Citroën, Shell/BG Brazil, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Natura in biofuels, natural gas, green chemistry, molecules for pharmaceuticals, and human well-being, respectively. FAPESP also recently signed a partnership agreement with Statoil to set up a research center in the field of oil and gas reservoirs.
“FAPESP has countless programs in all areas, and some are closer than others to the knowledge frontier. The Engineering Research Center Program is one of the programs that aim to explore new frontiers of science, such as new energies. This is the case of the new Center, which will be established in partnership with Shell,” said FAPESP President José Goldemberg, when launching the initiative in April.
According to Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, few countries in the world have programs of this kind, in which a research funding agency partners with private enterprise and they issue a joint call for proposals with common objectives and award long-term funding for the selected projects.
“FAPESP’s Engineering Research Center Program permits the integration of researchers in companies with researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions in São Paulo State so that they can develop genuine research collaborations,” Brito Cruz said.
He added: “The collaboration with Shell represents a special opportunity for researchers in São Paulo State to carry out research in collaboration with researchers from the company, which has intense in-house R&D activities.”
One of the challenges in advancing knowledge is the complexity of current scientific and technological problems. Another is delivering financial continuity – especially in a nation where federal research budgets have proven dangerously volatile (see article). However, FAPESP is the only institution in Brazil able to deliver endowment-based multi-year funding for research projects through its CEPID program.
Tackling these problems often requires longer term and more substantial support than that usually offered by FAPESP through its Regular Research Grants (or Thematic Projects). Longer term financing and (in many cases) interdisciplinary approaches permits more complex problems to be addressed, and is very often more successfully.
In many cases, the identification of the most potentially rewarding technology challenges can stem from an association with business or government entities, which are directly connected to market or societal needs. In this context, FAPESP has built on its successful CEPID program and has adapted it to facilitate partnership with committed co-funding industrial partners, who are motivated to utilize the research results, creating the Engineering Research Center Program.
The core mission of the Engineering Research Center initiative is to establish a long-term world class Research Center with effective mechanisms for education and dissemination of knowledge, and technology transfer. These programs require not only long-term financing but also a reasonably high degree of delegated authority in the application of the funding. They further require a strong institutional connection to the co-funding partner, and a regular and rigorous assessment of the Center’s performance.
At the April launch of NERC, Shell Brazil Country Chair André Lopes Araújo highlighted the opportunity represented by the partnership with FAPESP to intensify interactions between his company and the scientific community in São Paulo State and to extend its research efforts in new energies.
The Anglo-Dutch company, which maintains collaborations with universities and research institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, India and China, decided a few years ago to increase its investment in this area in order to address the challenge of the energy transition, according to Araújo.
“Projections indicate that in 2050, the world population will have reached 9 billion,” he said. “We face the challenge of producing more energy to meet demand and at the same time reducing emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2. We believe the solutions to the challenge of the energy transition will come from investment in technology and innovation.”
Shell unveiled a renewable energy division in 2016 and has announced a series of investments in first- and second-generation biofuels, hydrogen, solar power and wind power in various parts of the world.
“Although these alternative energy sources have significant commercial potential, they are not yet ready to sustain the future of the energy system,” said Ajay Mehta, Shell’s General Manager for Long-Range Research (LRR).
“We will place emphasis on areas in which we want to build capabilities, in which there is room for unlimited innovation, and which have an impact on several applications,” Mehta said.
In the field of dense energy carriers, the idea is for the center to support research relating to the development of cost-effective methods of synthesizing molecules such as hydrogen, methanol, hydrocarbons and ammonia from water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
The advanced energy storage division will fund research on batteries with intercalation-based and conversion-based electrodes, electrolytes of various types, and other storage devices, including flow batteries and supercapacitors.
The methane-to-products division will stimulate the search for new pathways to convert methane to high-value chemicals, such as methanol, acetylene and ethylene.
Finally, the computational materials science division aims to advance renewable and carbon-neutral energy research by leveraging both existing computational tools and new methods and techniques.
You can read a full article on this topic by Brazilian journalist Elton Alisson by clicking here.
You can see details of the RFP by clicking here.