Brazil has a tremendous amount of positive momentum these days. It’s fast emerging as one of the world’s important economies and has a huge wealth of oil, minerals, water, timber and agricultural land. Yet in this world of looming resource constraints, Brazil’s leaders are acutely conscious of the need to make the most of their abundance–while addressing the negative impacts on the environment.
IBM Research – Brazil, which was established last year as the company’s first research lab in the Southern Hemisphere, has aligned its research agenda with Brazil’s national priorities. It’s focusing on natural resources management, complex human systems such as the World Cup and Olympics events coming up in Brazil, low-complexity microelectronics of the type used in appliances and cars, and quality improvements in services–another area where Brazil is intent on expanding.
Natural resources management is the subject of the IBM Research – Brazil Colloquium, where IBM researchers and scientists from other organizations will speak about the potential and challenges they face. The colloquium is part of an IBM Centennial program designed to convene thought leaders – including leading researchers and scientists, academics, leaders of industries, public policy makers and key IBM clients — for a series of talks and panel discussions on transformational technologies and their potential impact on the world.
The Brazil colloquium is not only intended to foster knowledge and collaboration. “We want to be provocative,” says Fabio Gandour, the Chief Scientist at the Brazil lab, who is in charge of organizing the event.
Well, not too provocative. But Gandour does aim to raise potentially controversial questions before Brazilian government, academic and business leaders. A session on genomics and agriculture will urge farmers to seriously consider the consequences of genetically-modified seeds before planting. Speakers will urge education leaders to aggressively expand university programs in computational chemistry, biology and physics. Another session, on coupled human and natural systems, an emergent field of inquiry called CHANS, will caution about the potentially negative consequences on humans of massive industrial or agricultural changes.
Gandour gives an example: Widespread conversion of woodlands to farming has chased a Brazilian relative of the cockatoo from the countryside into cities, where the birds perch on television antennas and the like. It’s great for bird watchers, but the problem is that the birds can be carriers of bacteria that is potentially deadly to humans. The lesson: Be conscious of the unintended consequences of your actions and figure out how to deal with them.
While the provocations should make for lively question-and-answer sessions and conversations during breaks, the heart and soul of the colloquium will be about the potential for science to help make the world work better.
That’s where Ulisses Mello comes in. He’s the program director of the Smarter Natural Resources area in the Brazil lab, and will be one of the key speakers at the colloquium. A specialist in computational geosciences, he worked in research for Petrobras, Brazil’s largest oil company, before he joined IBM in 1994. Mello is on a mission: to help overhaul the world’s natural resource-based industries. “We want to use technology to transform what is traditionally not a knowledge-based industry into one that will manage natural resources to have a better social and economic impact–not only for Brazil but globally,” he says.
As a result of two massive oil discoveries in the ocean off the Atlantic coast of Brazil recently, an oil rush is on. Petrobras has pledged to invest $224 billion in exploration, well drilling and oil extraction over the next five years. Yet due to the the extreme depth of the water and the makeup of the rocks in the area of the findings, discovery and extraction will be risky and, potentially, very expensive.
Mello and his research team are working on new imaging and analysis techniques that will help oil companies find new resources more efficiently and manage them more productively and sustainably. He believes that these approaches could make it possible for the oil outfits to remove up to 70% of the oil from the new fields–compared to a global industry average of just 30%. One promising technique, called full-wave inversion, produces clearer images of underground reservoirs. Also, computer models that analyze the gradual transformation of the earth’s geology over millions of hears help oil companies determine whether a find contains oil, gas or water. This kind of analysis, conducted with supercomputers, is vitally important because of the cost of drilling a new well in deep ocean can be frightfully expensive–up to $250 million per well in some places–and, in some scenarios, only 10% of wells strike oil.
As a Brazilian, Mello is highly motivated to help the country become more economically productive, improve the quality of life and do it in a way that’s sustainable. On the colloquium: “This is the beginning of a dialogue with the Brazilian scientific community,” he says. “We’ll be part of the ecosystem. We’re here to stay. That’s the message.”