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.
From the political and economic turmoil came the new leaders that would to guide the institution in the following decades. Not only did Coppe survive without losing its identity and quality, but it intensified its social approach. In the 1980s, strategic issues such as the relationship between energy and the environment were introduced in Coppe’s agenda.
This was also the decade when the historic partnership between Coppe and Petrobras gained momentum, its first project being carried out during 1960. In 1977 the partnership was much strengthened, resulting in the development of the technology that enabled Petrobras to design its own platforms and allowed for the drilling of oil from deep sea fields. This technology has put Brazil in the leadership of deep water drilling and saved billions of dollars in foreign exchange for the country. This cooperation has generated more than 3,000 projects by 2013 and hundreds of doctoral theses and dissertations.
In 1982, the presidency was still occupied by a military, but the transition to democracy has already started. The punished by the regime had been amnestied in 1979 and the Institutional Act No. 5, the main instrument of arbitrary rule, had been extinguished a year earlier. The trade union movement has reorganized itself and grew. New political parties emerged, old parties re-emerged.
In Coppe also a new cycle began. Paulo Alcantara Gomes (1979-1981) became the director of Coppe, succeeding Sergio Neves Monteiro (1976-1978). The Deliberative Council, a body formed by all teachers and representatives of the student, extincted by Sydney Santos, was restored under Sandoval Carneiro (1982-1985). In 1986, Professor Luiz Pinguelli Rosa stepped in in the board of directors, the first director of Coppe elected by direct vote.
Pressured by the need to cut costs, the government commanded Finep to withdraw the support given to Coppe. At the same time, Capes and the CNPq, traditional providers of scholarships, reduced the number and value of scholarships. It was getting difficult to attract students.
In the end, it was possible to keep both the saddle and the horse. Despite the continuing economic difficulties, some good opportunities were exploited. Coppe advanced important cooperation projects with companies, which would later result in scientific gains and vital technology to the country.
They went to the sea: the story of the sucessful Coppe-Petrobras partnership
In the early 1980s, no country has yet mastered the technology to drill oil in very deep waters. Since 1974, Petrobras made successive oil discoveries in the depths of the Campos Basin. The challenge was to get it out of there. And there was urgency. One of the biggest problems of the Brazilian economy was the dependence on imported oil - imports covered 70% of domestic demand.
The imbalances in the external accounts were caused mainly by the deficits in the oil account after the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks and worsened in the 1980s with the debt crisis. Interest payments on foreign loans jumped from US$ 514 million in 1973 to US$ 9.5 billion in 1983. There was not much that Brazil could do. But a rapid increase in domestic oil production would alleviate the situation.
It was against this backdrop that Petrobras and Coppe signed, in 1977, the historic cooperation agreement that helped change the face of the Brazilian oil industry. Considered a success case of a partnership between company and university, it set in motion a lasting partnership that, for decades, has provided many benefits for Brazil and the Brazilian society.
Coppe’s professors, students and technicians plunged into the sea along with Petrobras. In the ocean, they helped build the technology that today gives Brazil the world leadership in oil exploration and production in deep waters.
By 2013 the cooperation had led to more than 3,000 research projects, hundreds of master’s and doctorate degrees and resulted in the creation of lato sensu graduation courses as well as of specializations.
The materialization of the agreement between Petrobras and Coppe pursuing the development of a technology for designing platforms occurred thanks to the efforts by the researchers from the Civil Engineering department, who managed to convince the company to invest in the partnership. They argued that Petrobras would gain from Coppe’s accumulated expertise in an engineering area called structural analysis. Under the agreement, Coppe should develop specific computer systems to design complex structures operating in dynamic conditions, such as oil rigs at sea. With these systems, Petrobras could design their own platforms. And, even better, those would be projected according to the conditions of the Brazilian sea - a service that no foreign office could provide.
By 1985, there were 33 fixed platforms operating in offshore fields in the Northeast region and in Espírito Santo state. Their design was based on the work that Coppe had performed for operations in shallow waters (10-48 meters / approx. 32-157 feet). In the same year, Petrobras was already projecting the first seven entirely national platforms to operate in deep waters (100 meters deep / approx. 328 feet) in the Campos Basin.
For Coppe, the success of the agreement entered by the Civil Engineering department set in motion a broad stream of new partnerships with the company that started to come into existence already in the 1980s. As new and different projects emerged, other departments were mobilized: Naval and Ocean Engineering; Metallurgy and Materials; Chemical engineering; and Electrical Engineering.
For Brazil, the agreement helped to change the face of the oil industry. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed successive record breaks in Petrobras' production in ever deeper waters. And the country entered to the select group of countries with offshore oil production technology.
Technology to advance into the sea
When the depth of the operations in the sea fields reached the hundreds of meters (more than 328 feet), it was necessary to abandon the fixed platforms tied into the seabed and use floating structures. First, were used the semi-submersible platforms. Then, platform ships (old converted oil tankers) also began to be employed.
In this process, the participation of researchers from the Naval and Oceanic Engineering department, who joined the pioneers of Civil Engineering, increased. Experts in marine hydrodynamics, they helped broaden the specific knowledge of the Brazilian waters.
An important part of the work done by Coppe for Petrobras is the development of techniques to monitor the movements of structures at sea and transmit them to the draftsmen in the company. One such technique developed in the 1980s is still used today to perform the numerical simulation of cathodic protection systems against corrosion of equipment. Another one resulted in a sophisticated system for monitoring the fatigue of tubular joints.
The cooperation agreement signed in 1977 was abolished in the early 1990s. It did not make more sense to keep it since the cooperation with Petrobras already occurred on many fronts, with multiple forms of funding and participation of many programs within Coppe.