When Coppe was born in 1963, it was named Master's Course in Chemical Engineering from the University of Brazil – the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)’s former name.
The “Course” gave rise to the largest research and education institution in engineering in Latin America, thanks to the initiative and determination of Professor Alberto Luiz Coimbra Galvão and the support of some fellow pioneers.
Coimbra, a chemical engineer and professor at the National School of Chemistry, was unsatisfied with the quality of the undergraduate courses in engineering in Brazil. He thought that the expansion of the industrial sector and the country's development needs demanded the further development of technology and projects methods. It was necessary, therefore, to combine the basic scientific principles of mathematics, physics and chemistry to the practical spirit of the engineers, so that a true engineering science was practiced. Otherwise, the Brazilians would be forever condemned to import technology – in an ever larger scale and not always suited for our specific needs.
Golden age, years of lead
Coppe’s second decade of existence was marked by the great crisis that resulted in the departure of its founder, Alberto Luiz Coimbra Galvão, in 1973. This period was the heyday of the military dictatorship. In a climate of unrest and snitching, the internal conflicts and power struggles evolved in an environment that encouraged threats and accusations that would pass beyond the university’s walls and would find their way to the doors of the regime's security agencies.
The traumatic removal of Coimbra put at risk the very survival of Coppe. For a time, it was feared that the institution would be dissolved within the university into different departments of the Chemical and Engineering Schools. Teachers accused of being lenient with students suspected of involvement in political activities were sacked; others resigned disenchanted.
However, the seeds planted by Coimbra resisted. His principles of commitment to academic excellence and the best interests of the Brazilian society, which Coimbra had transmitted to the faculty and his pupils, were strong enough to resist the difficulties. And Coppe not only survived, but it experienced a step change of its academic output in the years that followed – a transformation that would help it consolidate its position as a producer of knowledge and technology to the country.
The freedom´s party and the empty pockets
Those were hard times. On the one hand, Brazilians lived through turbulent, conflictive times, and experienced political rearrangements and the struggles for democratization. On the other hand, it endured the economic difficulties that marked the so-called "lost decade" of the country.
Faced with high inflation, heavy dependence on imported oil and the soaring of the interest rates of its external debt, the federal government gradually abandoned the role of inducer of the scientific and technological development. It is true that the system for the support of science and technology structured during the military regime was actually enlarged with the creation of the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1985 in the first government after the fall of the military government. However, in reality the funds for the sector dwindled.
In need of resources, Coppe had to devote a larger share of its activities to the demands of companies and government bodies and to learn to do that without compromising its independence and academic rigor. The practice of the newly-conquered democratic freedoms, which included choosing leaders by direct vote, was also hard.
Visibility and popular recognition
Despite the little federal funding for research that marked the first five years of the 1990s, this decade witnessed two major accomplishments.
The first was the consolidation of the opening of Coppe to the economic and social demands, a subject that became ever more present in the theses produced. These, in turn, provided academic support to the growing involvement of the institution in discussions of controversial social topics – which often found government officials and technicians on the opposite side of the discussion.
The subjects ranged from specific, limited issues to the privatization strategy put in place by the federal government and the risks in electric power generation and transmission, which culminated in the national "blackout" due to failures in energy planning. Coppe gained visibility outside the academic circles. It became better known nationally and recognized in the society.
If in the previous decade Coppe intensified its insertion and gained more visibility in the Brazilian society, over the 2000s the institution has expanded its internationalization process, delving into the main themes and dilemmas of the globalized world -- especially the challenges posed by the growth of global energy demand and the worsening of the environmental crisis with the intensification of climate change.
The first ten years of the twenty-first century were marked by the entering in operation of several large laboratories in Coppe. These laboratories are comparable to the most important research institutions in Europe and in the United States. Also, the new century witnessed the participation of its researchers in national and international bodies tasked with the formulation of policies, such as the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
It also helped to promote a positive coordination between government, business and civil society bodies which in turn enabled the construction of oil platforms in the country, promtping the recovery of the Brazilian naval industry.