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Mining University Informs about the Tasks of Its New Research Centres

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This year, five new research centres have been created at Russia’s oldest higher technical education institution. Their employees are tasked with raising the level of fundamental research to a new level. Forpost decided to find out how significant the structural changes were in the work of the scientists of the St. Petersburg university and what specific projects they are involved in today.

The main idea underlying the current configuration is the need to separate the scientific and educational processes, but at the same time to retain the opportunity to attract talented young people to research. Each department has well-equipped laboratories, where students continue to study, as before. However, the most valuable equipment is now concentrated in the new centres, where leading scientists work.

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“Science is an experiment performed with high reliability and quality of measurement. Its consequence is a result, be it a paper, a dissertation, a discovery. Naturally, to achieve it, we need a basis that allows us to conduct research. Scientific centers, where the most modern equipment is concentrated and an appropriate environment of trust is formed, are such a basis. The university now has five of them,” said Vladimir Litvinenko, rector of St. Petersburg Mining University.

Now scientists can stop worrying that the equipment they need at the most inopportune moment will turn out to be in demand during the educational process that has nothing to do with their specific research. After all, such a situation can stretch out their timelines considerably. For example, each experiment in a delayed coking reactor lasts at least 12 hours. Of course, in the event of a delay in access to this apparatus, it is automatically postponed until tomorrow, which is often unacceptable. Nevertheless, everyone has the opportunity to work on the equipment installed in the new Centers, because they are open sites.

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“The task of all of the centers created is to involve in the scientific process the staff members of the specialized departments, that is, all scientists. And their task is to mobilize all teachers who are engaged in similar topics because teachers who do not take part in scientific experiments cannot have high professional competence. And without this competence, they cannot be full-time faculty. These centers should also attract graduate students and young researchers from among students like a magnet,” Vladimir Litvinenko explained.

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According to Igor Pyagay, director of the Scientific Center for Problems of Mineral and Technogenic Resources Processing, thanks to the new format of scientific work, its efficiency has increased a lot, including due to the increased efficiency of using the equipment. Another important factor is the clear division of the infrastructure into technical and analytical parts, which means that scientists who conduct experiments do not cross paths with those who interpret the data already obtained. This takes place in different rooms and allows everyone to concentrate on the task at hand.

“It was very important to organize comfortable workplaces according to modern standards, to equip the laboratories with functional German furniture suitable for scientific research. We were able to do this; the employees now have to move from one space to another much less frequently, which of course saves time. Everything they need for their research is right next to them. This includes high-precision microscopes, socket outlets, the number of which has increased significantly thanks to the new electrical panels, and dishes stored at arm’s length in special niches or on shelves. Flow-through ventilation, internal drainage for collecting liquid waste, equipment for emergency aid in case of emergency - eye and skin washing units, sanitizers... All this may seem like little things, but it all forms the environment necessary for successful research, obtaining new fundamental knowledge and its further implementation in production,” emphasized Igor Pyagai.

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He specifies that it would have been impossible to create such a centre from scratch in just 3 months. However, the rich scientific and technological base that existed at the university, the support and full confidence of the rector, as well as investments from partner companies interested in intensifying cooperation with the St. Petersburg university in the field of raw material processing helped. First and foremost, we are talking about PhosAgro and Omsk Titan, whose development strategies were drafted by Mining University scientists.

Business fully supported Vladimir Litvinenko’s idea of transitioning to a new format of scientific work, and so did the scientists. For example, Vyacheslav Rudko, the Center’s executive director, said that he defended his doctoral dissertation only recently, only two years ago. Then he worked at the Department of Chemical Technology and Energy Processing. In addition to scientific research, his task also included conducting laboratory and practical classes with undergraduate students. Preparing for them and the very training hours, of course, took quite a lot of time.

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"The situation was such that I could not fully concentrate on either science or academic activities. And the instruments needed for research were dual-use - both scientists and students used them. That’s why the creation of science centers, whose full-time staff members were freed from teaching, is a very important step. All the more so because work with young people continues - our research teams include not only graduate and postgraduate students but even members of undergraduate programs. Some of them could become the new Gubkin or Obukhov," says Vyacheslav Rudko

Igor Pyagay specifies that at the moment the Center employs five students from the Department of Physical Chemistry, four from the Department of Metallurgy, another seven from the Department of Chemical Technologies and Energy Carriers Processing, and three from the Department of Automation of Technological Processes and Productions. This is necessary so that “promising guys enriched the lecture material through participation in scientific experiments, could see and understand with their own eyes what changes in the parameters of a particular substance lead to the expected or, on the contrary, unexpected reaction.”

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The number of postgraduate students who research at the Center for Problems of Mineral and Technogenic Resources Processing is, of course, much larger. After all, postgraduate school is not just another level of education, as many erroneously believe, but the initial stage of independent scientific activity. In this regard, young people who enrol in it receive not only a stipend, but also a salary, and are placed on the staff in their respective positions. Their salary can go up to 60 thousand rubles.

What is the research that takes place within the framework of projects under the state assignment, grants of the Russian Science Foundation, or business contracts on cooperation with private customers? For example, obtaining new knowledge and creating breakthrough technologies on their basis in the development of catalysts required for the synthesis of various materials. Another important area is fuel additives, which help to minimize environmental damage caused by exhaust emissions from car tailpipes. Today they cause up to 70% of all pollutant emissions in cities, and if we reduce this rate by at least half, the effect will be substantial. The third vector is the development of components for biodiesel, which, unlike conventional fuels, is not made from oil but vegetable oil. However, Igor Pyagay believes that the most promising and, most importantly, extremely necessary for the domestic economy scientific work is research in the field of needle coke production.

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“The depth of oil refining in Russia at some refineries is 65-67%, which is very low. In Western countries, this figure reaches 97%, because all refineries there are equipped with coking reactors. They allow you to involve in processing the heavy fractions that remain after the primary distillation of oil. Our task is not only to introduce this technology but also to obtain, thanks to it, new high-margin products. In particular, this is needle coke of premium quality which is necessary for manufacturing anodes and graphitized electrodes. They are used, for example, in lithium-ion batteries. The cost of needle coke is ten times higher than that of conventional coke. But to produce it, it is necessary to calculate all the parameters of the equipment and determine the quality characteristics of the feedstock. Any error in calculations may affect the properties of the final product and, consequently, its price. In order to avoid such a scenario it is necessary to conduct a huge number of experiments related to the separation of heavy fractions and analysis of the obtained result,” said Igor Pyagay

Научная статья "Technology of Petroleum Needle Coke Production in Processing of Decantoil with the Use of Polystyrene as a Polymeric Mesogen Additive" https://doi.org/10.1021/acsomega.1c02985

The reactor which is used for the profile studies costs about 5 million rubles, and this is not the most expensive equipment that scientists have at their disposal. On the whole, the creation of a full-fledged science centre, including repairs, the purchase of specialized furniture, and all the necessary equipment, could cost as much as 2 billion rubles. Investments in human capital are also large. For example, each graduate student requires more than $2 million annually.

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The budget, of course, is in short supply. The lack is supplemented by donors, i.e., partner companies that invest in promising young people. Corporations such as PhosAgro, Rosneft, Gazprom, Russian Copper Company, Titan, Caterpillar, Schneider Electric, Orica, Total participate in improving the quality of the scientific and educational environment created at Mining University and, as a result, in the formation of a science-based model of the national economy. And this is one of the key tasks of Russia’s strategic development.

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