‘We should find some common ground, this is why the concept of the REC has been discussed for long’

What will the Tatarstan world-class research and educational centre be like? The republic is looking for its optimal development ways

Tatarstan is preparing to fight for federal money given to regions to fund a world-class Research and Educational Centre (REC). Those regions whose applications will win the selection process will get the money. While Tatarstan is preparing to submit an application, the republic is holding heated debates on what concept and financing model to choose for the REC in the Republic of Tatarstan. The federal grant is just a small part, the centre must exist primarily with money from extra-budgetary sources. Large businesses this role was given to are core budget enterprises of the republic. This is why scientific developments of the REC financed by them must be as practical as possible, while investments must pay back to the economy of Tatarstan with profit. Now members of the Tatarstan REC are discussing how to achieve effective integration of science and production. Realnoe Vremya heard out the sides’ opinions.

How and what RECs are created for

A world-class research and educational centre, or REC, is a union of universities, scientific organisations and big companies. The centre is designed to establish communication between the scientific community and the real sector of the economy. Vladimir Putin initiated the creation of RECs in Russia’s regions in his address to the Federal Assembly in 2019. The work is done within Science federal national project whose implementation envisages 636bn rubles of funding.

At least 15 RECs must be created in the country by late 2021. Five pilot centres already exist in Perm Krai, Kuzbass, Nizhny Novgorod, Belgorod and Tyumen Oblasts. Each of them has a specialisation — biotechnologies, coal production or Arctic research. Other RECs created in regions must win the selection process to receive state support. The government of Russia will choose the winners as well as the amount of federal grants.

Five pilot centres already exist in Perm Krai, Kuzbass, Nizhny Novgorod, Belgorod and Tyumen Oblasts. Photo: Dmitry Kirchanov, kemsu.ru

After the selection process to receive the public money, centres must provide a report on successful performance of programmes. But the grants aren’t a major component of the financing of REC projects, the centres must attract extra-budgetary money. Moreover, it must be ten times bigger than the public funding: “It is about a ruble of public money and 30 rubles of extra-budgetary financing,” Russian Minister of Science and Higher Education Mikhail Kontyukov explained. The first five RECs attracted 15,3bn rubles of extra-budgetary money by late 2019. According to the national project’s documentation, during its implementation, it is necessary to attract 233bn rubles from extra-budgetary sources.

Big Russian companies became partners who are ready to render such financial support: LUKOIL for the REC in Perm, Gazprom Neft — for the REC in Tyumen, SIBUR — for the REC in Voronezh and so on. This is why scientists are tasked with working in prioritised areas for the country’s economy and achieving results that will help to increase Russia’s competitiveness in world markets. Because according to Science national project’s goals, Russia must be in the top 5 countries in research and developments in the priority areas of scientific and technological development in the world.

The RECs that were and are created already do research and offer the market new technologies. For instance, the industrial partner of Kuzbass REC — RUSAL company — is testing new effective and eco-friendly aluminium production technology. Scientists from the Belgorod REC are breeding a new type of swine species to boost Russian production’s competitiveness. A member of North — Territory of Sustainable Development Centre from Yakutia, a resident of the IT Park SCIBERIA developed a programme recognising coronavirus pneumonia in less than a minute.

About half of the Russian regions have submitted applications for the creation of RECs. Tatarstan is also actively working in this area. In February, the republic’s president signed a decree On World-Class Scientific and Educational Centre in the Republic of Tatarstan. Tatneftekhiminvest-holding became the coordinator of the centre, though Kazan Federal University was the initiator of the creation of the REC first. At this moment the university is considered as its office.

Over a ten of universities, scientific organisations and sectoral associations became members of the Tatarstan REC: Kazan Federal University, Kazan National Research Technological University, Kazan Aviation Institute, Kazan State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Kazan State Medical University, Kazan State Medical Academy, Kazan State Academy of Veterinary Medicine, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan Scientific Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Petrochemical R&D, Innokam Kama Innovation Cluster, the Tatarstan Association of Enterprises and Industrialists. According to changes made to the decree, such companies as Kazanorgsintez, Nizhnekamskneftekhim, KAMAZ, Tatneft, Nefis Cosmetics, Tatenergo, Grid Company, Tatenergosbyt, Tatkhimfarmpreparaty, Alabuga SEZ, ICL are also members of the group among enterprises.

The president of Tatarstan chaired the supervisory board, Russian Vice Minister of Science and Higher Education Marina Borovskaya and Tatarstan Prime Minister Aleksey Pesoshin became his deputies. Head of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding Rafinat Yarullin was appointed as secretary of the supervisory board. The board also includes ministers, university rectors and directors of companies: Ruslan Shigabutdinov from TAIF, Sergey Kogogin from KAMAZ, Valery Sorokin from Svyazinvestneftekhim, Nail Maganov from Tatneft.

At Tatneftekhiminvest-holding’s meetings, Rafinat Yarullin explained that a REC was necessary to create new technologies and types of products that were competitive in the world market. The Tatarstan centre is planned to specialise in chemistry, petrochemistry, oil refining, medicine, pharmaceutical chemistry and biotechnologies.

At Tatneftekhiminvest-holding’s meetings, Rafinat Yarullin explained that a REC was necessary to create new technologies and types of products that were competitive in the world market. Photo: president.tatarstan.ru

At the next meeting of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding in June, key activities in the REC in Tatarstan were discussed. The holding’s board of directors agreed on eight areas: circular economy (Tatneft), multi-omics foresight of humanity’s health (KFU), creation of a new generation of vehicles (KAMAZ), production and high conversion of hydrocarbons (KFU together with Nizhnekamskneftekhim and Tatneft), sustainable energy and elimination of accumulated damage, advanced materials (KAI), digital technologies (Innopolis), agriculture and biotechnologies (KFU).

Tatarstan will choose the deadline to apply for the federal contest in August-September. The Russian Ministry of Science will allocate the biggest amount of scientific grants — 11,4bn rubles. 50 regions with projects on their RECs are expected to compete.

Who invests in Tatarstan science

The main task of the REC is to provide integration of science and the industry — it is already implemented by large companies in Tatarstan. For instance, TAIF Group has been cooperating with the republic’s leading universities for many years — Kazan Federal University, Kazan National Research Technological University, Kazan Aviation Institute, Kazan State Power Engineering University. Several successful projects became the result of this work.

So the development of catalysts — substances that play a key role in petrochemical processes and determine the quality and prime cost of end products — can be called a successful example of cooperation between KFU and Nizhnekamskneftekhim. These products are mostly of foreign origin, this is why not to depend on foreign suppliers, NKNK together with KFU began developing Russian catalysts.

For this purpose, the enterprise and university founded a laboratory of adsorption and catalytic processes. Federal grants the university won to develop a series of catalysts helped the business as well. A highly effective ferric potassium catalyst created jointly allowed replacing the ferric potassium catalyst by Shell and BASF at NKNK.

Later, there was created a catalyst used in isobutylene and isoamylene production (TAIF invested about 700m rubles in this project), there were also made catalysts to dehydrate ethylene benzene into styrene used to manufacture rubbers and polystyrene. It is also planned to make other developments.

The development of catalysts became a successful example of cooperation between KFU and Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC. Photo: Maksim Platonov

KFU also closely works with Kazanorgsintez. For instance, the university did differential scanning calorimetry together with thermographic analysis of samples of thermal stabilisers (special additives slowing down the destruction of polymer materials when heating) for the Central Laboratory of the company in 2016. In 2017-2019, there were created test batches of catalysts, and the samples were tested in a pilot unit. The goal of the project is to create a Russian ethane-ethylene fraction dehydration catalyst to substitute foreign catalysts made by Clariant.

There is close cooperation established with Kazan National Research Technological University as well. Nizhnekamskneftekhim works with the university to improve the propylene and styrene oxide production technology. NKNK is Russia’s unique enterprise to make it. Propylene oxide is used to produce propylene glycol, propylene carbonate, isopropanolamine, polyoxypropylene polyol, propylene sulphide and as an intermediate substance to manufacture polyurethane, polyester resins. The Kazan scientists offer to make the compound with cumene hydroperoxide. For TAIF’s another enterprise, Kazanorgsintez, Kazan National Research Technological University developed a project to shift turbine refrigerators from liquid coolants to ozone-friendly refrigerants. This allowed boosting the effectiveness of refrigerators and eco-friendliness of production.

Another Kazan university, Kazan Aviation Institute, won Kazanorgsintez’s bid to develop terms of reference to improve the enterprise’s electricity supply system. A detailed analysis allowed them to find possibilities to improve the facility’s energy supply. TAIF also participates in the university’s endowment fund, which consists of the university’s graduates and partners’ donations. Over 20 million rubles have been raised since the fund’s foundation, TAIF has invested half of it. The fund’s money is allocated for purposes established by benefactors and the financial plan. In particular, the creation of an interactive museum in the first supersonic passenger plane Tu-144 was financed this way.

Senior Development Advisor to TAIF JSC Director General, KAI’s graduate Albert Shigabutdinov and Director General of TAIF-NK JSC Rushan Shamgunov are members of the Board of Trustees of the university together with Tatarstan government members and top managers of big republican companies. The Board of Trustees helps make engineering specialities more popular and cooperation between the industry and education fruitful, it supports the university’s projects.

Senior Development Advisor to TAIF JSC Director General, KAI’s graduate Albert Shigabutdinov is a member of the Board of Trustees of the university. Photo: Maksim Platonov

There is cooperation with Kazan State Power Engineering University in staff training, advanced training and scientific research. For TGC-16, the university developed a project on energy-efficient resource-saving water consumption systems with modular electrical membrane devices in energy enterprises. Within this work, there was created an experimental electrical membrane device for energy-efficient refining of liquid waste from thermal energy plants without reagents. The project is implemented at the Nizhnekamsk CHPP as a test unit to dispose of saline discharge. This will save resources and energy to generate thermal and electrical energy and allow reducing the manmade environmental impact.

As a result of the joint work of the scientists and industrialists, both sides are at an advantage. The universities have reliable partners and an opportunity to do expensive scientific research. The enterprises obtain new technology. However, TAIF invests not only in research it needs but also the development of the chemical sector in general and popularisation of the chemist’s profession itself. So the Group helped KFU erect a laboratory building of the Butlerov Institute of Chemistry having invested over 400 million rubles in the construction. The seven-storeyed building has 20 big laboratories to do research on organic chemistry, supramolecular chemistry, petrochemistry and fine chemical technology and catalysis. Students of the Kazan Lyceum No. 131 also received equipment to study chemistry. A chemical laboratory was created in the school with money of Kazanorgsintez PJSC — about a million rubles.

The lyceum’s student Oleg Panfutov won the International Chemistry Olympiad in 2019. At a meeting with the Kazan mayor, the young man directly claimed that the laboratories equipped this way were a critical component of schoolchildren’s great achievements.

So TAIF Group is interested in consecutive work when it comes to staff policy: to engage teenagers in chemistry at a young age so that the best of them will join chemical companies after graduation, including TAIF’s enterprises and will not choose another path.

TAIF helped KFU erect a laboratory building of the Butlerov Institute of Chemistry. Photo: Maksim Platonov

What will the REC in Tatarstan be like?

The real sector of the economy needs new technology, and large businesses are ready to invest money in its development, which TAIF and some other big companies of the republic have proved during their long-term work with the universities. There is no doubt that this cooperation will go on in the REC as well. It is just necessary to choose the correct model of relationships between the participants in the centre that is created so that the scheme will work and benefit everybody.

So what will the Tatarstan REC be like? Debates on the format of operation of the centre in the republic still go on. Tatneftekhiminvest-holding recently hosted a seminar on priority areas of the centre. University representatives presented their proposals. Vice Rector of the university, Director of the Institute of Fundamental Medicine and Biology Andrey Kiyasov gave a speech on Medical Technology and Pharmaceutics on behalf of KFU. The speaker offered to give the Tatarstan REC the role of a regulating institute when ties between elements of the production chain are created: science — technology — production — market. The centre’s members will be able to cooperate in joint investment and research projects including together with international players in Life Science, Biological Medical Equipment and Pharmaceutics.

“At this moment, we are working online. Every university is preparing its presentations. We are meeting, debating, talking and we are going to table these issues at a meeting of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding. So we keep working to create the REC, we look for new areas every day. We’ve received a lot of new proposals from Kazan Federal University, Kazan State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering and Kazan State Power Engineering University. Kazan National Research and Technological University also joined us, they have a new rector now. In a word, the work is fruitful. But you should understand that when you work in such a regime, communicate through the screen (the debates are held on Zoom), it is impossible to argue, talk and find the optimal solution. This activity is very complicated at the moment, but we are working,” Director General of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding Rafinat Yarullin told Realnoe Vremya.

Tatneftekhiminvest-holding recently hosted an online seminar on priority areas of the centre on Zoom

The financial side of the creation of the REC is attractive as well. Different financing schemes were voiced. For instance, in KFU’s presentation on the creation of the REC in Tatarstan considered money from the federal, regional budget and sectoral enterprises as sources. Moreover, the university considers that the Tatarstan treasury and businesses will divide the costs by half.

Another option is to lay the main burden on industrialists as the main customers of new technology. Moreover, costs for businesses, by all estimates, will be significant — billions of rubles for some companies. We can’t clearly say what will be correct for the Tatarstan REC. But whichever road they follow, businesses’ investments in the REC must bring a result — the country’s management sets such a task. The project is implemented under the Tatarstan president’s control. Investors’ every ruble is expected to pay back and bring the republic at least 2-3 rubles, otherwise, the effect will be insignificant given that the industrialists participate in a variety of other important public and social projects requiring considerable expenses. For instance, TAIF Group’s loan debt totalled almost 200bn rubles in early July.

“Of course, if an enterprise isn’t interested, it won’t participate. We talk a lot about the integration of science, education and the industry. Unfortunately, there is some common ground today, except for staff we train. If we talk about scientific research, they are mainly practical. But enterprises don’t need a long-term perspective but introduction here and now because they are interested in profit and conservation of competitiveness in the market. We should find some common ground, this is why the concept of the REC has been discussed for so long. If it referred only to universities or enterprises, everything would have been written and we would have come to an agreement a long time ago. As people say, three lawyers mean three opinions. A lot of interests clash here,” KFU Rector Ilshat Gafurov noted.

The director general of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding replies evasively when asked about which financing scheme of the REC coordinators of the project were inclined to:

“May I not talk about this topic with you. We aren’t talking about finance now. We want Tatarstan to make its offers, the other regions are making them as well. We need to win the bid first and talk about financing then.”

According to the head of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding, the location of the REC’s office as well as its management are still under discussion. “We haven’t made the final decision yet. There are several proposals, we’re discussing them,” the director general of Tatneftekhiminvest-holding concluded.

The KFU rector added that they couldn’t say for sure at the moment what the REC in Tatarstan would be like — the concept of the centre was still created. The government didn’t establish united requirements here, while the regions are offering different options. Gafurov says that the enterprises are also offering different mechanism of participation:

“The REC is today the only mechanism that can integrate the interests of science, education and businesses. We set our task so that scientific establishments will work to improve the competitiveness of core enterprises that replenish the budget or skeleton of the republic today.”

According to him, science at the same time must work to diversity the Tatarstan economy to develop such sectors as information technologies or medicine.

KFU Rector Ilshat Gafurov added that they couldn’t say for sure at the moment what the REC in Tatarstan would be like — the concept of the centre was still created. Photo: Maksim Platonov

“There is no sense in creating something here that is cheaper to buy and has a good quality”

High conversion of hydrocarbons is one of the areas chosen for the Tatarstan REC. Research in this area could help develop the Russian petrochemical industry, and here it is important to support promising projects.

“The Russian petrochemical industry is characterised for a high technological dependence on imports. The share of Russian technology in petrochemistry can be evaluated at just 20-50%, import dependence on some technology is 100% as well as in catalysts and reagents that are used. Over 50% of used catalysts in Russian enterprises are of foreign origin. There are few examples of the use of Russian technology in the sector’s enterprises, and this technology was often created over 30 years ago,” says head of the Department of Petrochemistry and Polymers of the Topchiyev Institute of Petrochemical Synthesis of the Russian Academy of Sciences at HSE NRU Albert Kulikov.

Leading enterprises of the Russian petrochemical sector, indeed, work mainly with foreign technology. For instance, Russian ethylene producers often choose foreign partners. In 2019, RusGazDobycha’s subsidiary — Baltic Chemical Complex (BCC) — purchased a licence from the American Lummus Technology to make ethylene. In 2017, Nizhnekamskneftekhim and Linde AG (Germany) signed an agreement on the design, delivery of equipment, licensing, launch of capacities of 600,000 tonnes of ethylene a year. The assembly of the primary fractionation column recently began on the construction site of NKNK’s olefin complex — Ethylene-600.

The situation with the choice of technology to make polyethylene is the same. BCC signed a licensing agreement with Univation Technologies LLC (USA) to manufacture it. This year ZapSibNeftekhim will launch polymerisation units to make modern high- and low-density polyethylene types, INEOS (Great Britain) is the licensor. The country’s biggest polyethylene manufacturer Kazanorgsintez produces 40,25% of all Russian polyethylene with the technology by the American Univation Technologies. Stavrolen plant in Buddyonovsk makes polyethylene with Unipol’s licence. Nizhnekamskneftekhim manufactures polyethylene with LyondellBasell’s Spherilene gas phase technology — LyondellBasell is a multinational company with American and European roots.

In 2017, Nizhnekamskneftekhim and Linde AG (Germany) signed an agreement on the design, delivery of equipment, licensing, launch of capacities of 600,000 tonnes of ethylene a year. Photo: Lina Sarimova

Propylene with LyondellBasell’s Spherilene technology is made in Russia by Nizhnekamskneftekhim and ZapSibNeftekhim. It might seem that Russian enterprises prefer foreign technology to ours, but, in fact, they choose the best. Let’s take polycarbonate production. It is made in two ways: with and without phosgene. Phosgene is one of the most dangerous chemical substances, it takes carbon monoxide and chlorine to make it, their storage must be carefully monitored. Kazanorgsintez studied technology in world markets and chose Asahi Kasei’s phosgene-free technology. A bisphenol A plant by Japan’s Idemitsu Kosan’s technology was built at KOS together with the polycarbonate plant. In 2019, NKNK signed a contract with Haldor Topsoe from Denmark (the company is the world’s leader in catalysis and surface science) on licensing and engineering services for the technology of a new methanol plant with a capacity of 500,000 tonnes a year.

Russian scientists themselves don’t see sense in the maximum substitution of foreign technology for theirs. The economic effect isn’t reasonable, it is often more feasible to buy well-oiled technology from neighbours than develop ours.

“Of course, we don’t need to create all technology ourselves. Firstly, it is impossible, secondly, there is no need. Import substitution is necessary only for strategic production, for instance, in the defence industry. It is necessary to develop our technology just in case. As for the rest of the industry, it isn’t necessary. Will we invent a milking machine if a good one was already brought from Denmark or the Netherlands? We need our developments only if it is economically feasible or politically driven, so what for? Otherwise, there will be no commerce. It is at times more profitable to buy technology abroad. Will we make everything here like the Chinese? It is wrong as well! There is no sense in creating something here that is cheaper to buy and has a good quality,” Director of KFU’s Institute of Chemistry Vladimir Galkin is convinced.

“To fill the technological gap, Russia needs to create a wide range of Russian technology to make petrochemical products. In some cases, the development of Russian technology isn’t reasonable either economically or technologically. We can put an example of the pyrolysis technology development that requires considerable capital investments, and considering foreign pyrolysis technology that is included to current and planned projects, the creation of Russian technological solutions isn’t feasible in this area nowadays,” Albert Kulikov noted.

We shouldn’t forget that a big number of ambitious initiatives aimed to develop the economy have been announced in Tatarstan alone in the last 10 years. But only a third of 30 big investment projects that are worth a trillion rubles has been implemented, Realnoe Vremya found out in its recent research. Moreover, 40% of all investments have been provided by oil production, chemistry, petrochemistry and oil refining, and no enterprise has appeared in other sectors. Nevertheless, it is correct to evaluate the project’s prospects. This is why TAIF actively supports science and education with a lot of money and always endorses a measurable result of any scientific start-up or idea.

“The first and main condition is that it must be profitable for both a business and science”

According to experts, industrialists and the scientific community need to come together correctly. An enterprise works for the market and wants to become a leader in it. Photo: Maksim Platonov

The fate of the Tatarstan REC will mainly depend on the chosen development model. Representatives of businesses also support the idea of creating the centre, they understand the necessity of integration with the scientific community. If republican scientists’ scientific developments are practical and investments pay back with profit, such cooperation will be successful. Enterprises’ participants in this association must be equal partners.

“The integration of science and business is the correct idea. Close cooperation with a scientific establishment is sometimes profitable for a business, then it will lead to positive results. If this is done under pressure, it is senseless. In a word, the creation of the REC is sensible if it is done voluntarily. There is world experience, it is clear how one should establish such links. The first and main condition is that it must be profitable for both a business and science. Science is interested in receiving financing on research. A business needs some research, it orders it and pays for it,” Ex-Economy Minister of Russia, Advisor to the Rosnano PJSC Board Chairman, Doctor of Economic Sciences Yakov Urinson expressed his opinion to Realnoe Vremya.

“It isn’t the first project of this kind. There are a lot of scientific, engineering and other centres now. They should be created, everything is great, but nobody has demonstrated great successes yet. Of course, science must be supported. It is a pity this wasn’t done in the past, and now it has been suddenly understood that we can’t do without it. The authorities’ task is to develop the scientific and technological progress, achieve world technological breakthroughs. How to do this? They decide: ‘Let’s create another scientific centre, might practical workers and theoreticians make up something together. We won’t give them a lot of money, just a bit, might enterprises finance the rest themselves’. Okay, they voted, approved it. Will it work? I doubt. I have seen a lot of this kind, but little works in the end,” expert and analyst of FINAM JSC Aleksey Kalachev sceptically noted.

According to the experts, industrialists and the scientific community need to come together correctly. An enterprise works for the market and wants to become a leader in it. Scientists’ work must be created according to the needs of the economy’s real sector. Only in this case, the cooperation between science and businesses within the REC can be mutually profitable.

By Vasilya Shirshova