05/09/2006 - 22:00

Resources R&D up

05/09/2006 - 22:00


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If ever research and innovation were going to boost Western Australia’s economic prospects, now is the time.

Resources R&D up

If ever research and innovation were going to boost Western Australia’s economic prospects, now is the time.

Not research and innovation in ‘new industries’ such as biotechnology or information technology, however, which policy makers are fond of promoting.

The sector attracting most research and innovation support is WA’s biggest and strongest industry – mining and resources.

There has been an unprecedented surge in the amount of money committed to R&D in the resources sector, and some of the key players believe the end result will be a significant boost in the state’s economy.

The latest development was Chevron’s decision to establish a global technology centre in Perth, with about 100 staff when fully established.

This followed last month’s official opening of BHP Billiton’s global technology centre in Bentley, which is one of three global innovation centres operated by the resources giant.

The BHP centre, which will get a slice of the global mining giant’s $100 million annual R&D spend, is expected to have about 110 researchers when fully resourced in three years.

Another recent move was the appointment of Ian Finnie as chief executive of the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance, a collaboration between CSIRO Petroleum, the University of WA and Curtin University.

WA ERA was established in 2003 and has attracted major funding support, with the state government committing $20 million in 2004 and Woodside and Chevron each agreeing to invest up to $5 million a year.

Ironically, this flurry of interest in R&D has created its own problem, with each centre facing the challenge of recruiting specialist research staff.

WA ERA chairman and former Woodside executive David Agostini said the alliance had already been constrained by the highly competitive global demand for quality researchers.

“We found it more difficult than we would have expected when we started,” he said.

Mr Agostini said the alliance was designed to combine the capabilities of the three foundation members.

“The whole concept was based on the fact that the institutions in WA that have research capabilities on energy matters were small with pockets of expertise but were not capable of picking up industry’s challenges and running with them in a way that would encourage industry to do their research here,” he said.

Mr Agostini acknowledges the alliance has not progressed as rapidly as the founding members had hoped.

The research partnership with Woodside had been progressing slowly, with some new research commissioned, while the alliance with Chevron had been constrained by that company’s annual budget cycle.

 “We are not as far advanced with actual work on the ground as we would have wished,” Mr Agostini said.

 “Most of the work has to go through that cycle and we are just beginning to see that coming out the other end, with a fair number of programs being initiated now.”

Dr Finnie, who hails from the UK but previously spent time in Perth as a Ph.D. student, is very upbeat about the prospects for WA ERA and the WA gas industry.

“Without any question this is the most exciting place to be and it will be for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Dr Finnie said global demand for gas would be driven by its plentiful supply relative to oil reserves, and its appeal as a clean fuel.

He said WA’s gas reserves – offshore in deep water – would require new technology to support their efficient exploitation.

“Historically, WA like other regions has imported technology,” he said.

“What’s special about this is the gas is relatively hard to get at and it needs to be treated specially, and so the technology is something that has to be developed.”

Mr Agostini said WA’s “almost unique” position in the global energy market would drive an increase in energy research, which in the past had mostly been conducted in North America and Europe.

“If we don’t do the research, that special endowment we have inherited may not be properly exploited,” Mr Agostini said.

“So there is a certain strategic pressure on us to do the research here.”

Dr Finnie points to Norway as a country that has built a strong industry on the back of its oil reserves.

“I think we ought to take a lesson from the Norwegians, and think about what we can do through collaboration in Western Australia rather than relying on outside sources.”


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