* Petrobras seeking innovation for deepwater exploration
* Hopes to spur int'l investment in research facilities
By Brian Ellsworth
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 4 Brazilian state energy company Petrobras (PETR4.SA) plans to invest as much as $4.5 billion in research and development over the next five years, with a focus on advancing technologies for ultra-deepwater oil production.
The company's research center is working with Brazilian universities to tackle technical challenges to producing oil that is buried deep below the ocean's surface under a thick layer of salt.
"To drill through 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of salt is not a very easy task," said Carlos Fraga, executive manager of research and development for Petrobras. "It requires specific technology. The strategy is to have one of the most important research and development centers for oil and gas worldwide."
Innovations from Petrobras research include the development of materials that can resist corrosion under the heavy pressure of ultra-deep waters and new methods for interpreting seismic data needed for the offshore region known as the subsalt, which Brazil hopes will turn it into a major oil exporter.
Government regulations require oil companies to invest 1 percent of gross revenues from high-productivity fields in research and development.
Petrobras expects it will invest between $800 million and $900 million per year over the next five years.
Companies including International Business Machines Corp (IBM.N), Schlumberger Ltd (SLB.N) and General Electric Co (GE.N) have announced plans to open research facilities in Brazil to develop technology for the oil and gas industry. Petrobras last year inaugurated a $700 million expansion of its Cenpes research facility.
University research facilities in Brazil are helping Petrobras understand how ocean waves and currents affect operations of floating platforms that extract oil from under the sea while anchored hundreds of kilometers from the coast.
Engineers at a research lab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro test model platforms in a wave pool that simulate the motion of ships under different conditions.
"Nobody knows what can happen when you have waves and current together," said Paulo Esperanca, a naval engineer with COPPE's ocean lab. "The best way to get close to reality is to do tests. If you're going to spend $1 billion to develop an oil field, you have to be confident about design."
A similar project at a research facility at the University of Sao Paulo uses massive computing capacity to create virtual models of ocean conditions.
Brazil hopes to speed up its pace of technological innovation, which lags behind emerging market rivals. Both India and China generally file a considerably greater number of international patents than Brazil. (Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)