The Promise Of Basic Research

Vale’s Carajás mine (Image credit: Vale)

Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, has been quietly operating a basic research center near the mouth of the Amazon River since 2009. The project illustrates the importance of context to innovation in Brazil and other BRIC countries.

“In some respects, Brazil is similar to the U.S. in the mid-20th century,” explained Dr. Luiz Mello, Vale’s Executive Director of Technology and Innovation. “The government is still assembling a regulatory infrastructure, and looking to private sector research to drive innovations and economic growth.”

“Vale sees the opportunity to do something similar to what Bell Labs, Xerox’s PARC, and the GE Research Lab did, only from a 21st century perspective.”

That perspective is best illustrated by Vale’s Institute of Technology (“ITV”) and its 100-person staff. While a team in Ouro Preto, a city near Belo Horizonte in Brazil’s Southeastern region, studies cutting-edge mining tech, personnel in a facility in Belém have a far more expansive remit: Its experts in biodiversity, sociology, weather, and a variety of other seemingly unrelated fields research the opportunities and requirements for sustainable growth.

It’s no coincidence that the Belém facility is located near the mouth of the Amazon River, or that Mello is a neuroscientist, not a mining executive.

“The next phase of mining development needs to be compatible with our environment, as well as address peoples’ economic ambitions,” Mello said.

It’s a very different perspective than past innovation mandates.

Bell Labs didn’t look substantively at the environmental effects of its first photovoltaic cell, and nobody at PARC tempered its GUI innovations with studies of ergonomic or cultural implications. And, unlike mid-20th century America, now there is global awareness and interest in influencing the direction of innovation, especially in BRIC countries with high potential for economic growth.

Already, ITV researchers have developed a climate model that yields forecasts that allow it to better manage fuel use on its supply chain between its Carajás mine and port (led by a leader of Brazil’s technical group negotiating the Kyoto Protocol (Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho was co-chairman of the Scientific Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as president of the Brazilian Space Agency).

It helped adapt conveyor belts used in coal mining, which will lower the environmental impact of what will be the world’s largest iron mine when it opens next year, as well as offers an ongoing professional development certification program, engages with academicians around the world, and connects Vale with Brazil’s tech startup community through participation in such programs as iTech.

Perhaps ITV’s most important innovation, though, is one of facilitating conversation, whether within Vale, among its suppliers and partners, between the Brazilian and other governments under which it works, or with its critics.

Mining requires digging big holes in the ground, after all, and the company’s near-term prospects will require working closer to urban and natural locations, as well as utilizing new technologies to yield more from existing mines.

Dr. Mello explained: “We live in an age of increasing scarcity, and the fact that the days of lax oversight or low accountability are long gone is good for all of us. Our strategy is to embrace this reality, and innovate within a context that involves both the people and the science that are necessary to make the right decisions.”

“What we are doing isn’t just exclusive to Brazil, but it’s already informing how we innovate around the world.”