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Editorial: Japanese Nobel Prize behind ‘mobile revolution’ grounded in basic research

  • October 10, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Akira Yoshino, an honorary fellow at Asahi Kasei Corp., has won a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of lithium-ion batteries, alongside two scientists from universities in the United States. It is the first time in nine years for a Japanese scientist to win the chemistry prize.

 

Lithium-ion batteries are small and light, have a high output, and can be used repeatedly through recharging. They are used widely in mobile devices such as smartphones and computers, and are modern conveniences that support people’s lives.

 

Battery performance depends on what materials are used at the positive and negative electrodes. In creating the first commercially viable prototype of the lithium-ion battery, Yoshino used lithium cobalt oxide developed by those including fellow laureate John Goodenough at the positive electrode, and a carbon material at the negative electrode. Thus in 1985, the technology for these safe, high-performance batteries was established.

 

The first product to use these batteries was a small 8mm video camera for home use sold by Sony Corp., marketed as a passport-sized device. When the IT revolution occurred from around the mid-1990s, the use of such batteries increased explosively. In recent years their application has been spreading, and they are used in electric vehicles as well as to store energy generated by solar panels.

 

One point of note in Yoshino’s receipt of the Nobel Prize is that he is a researcher at a private firm. This puts him in the company of Koichi Tanaka, a senior fellow at Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto in western Japan, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2002, and Shuji Nakamura, who invented the blue light-emitting diode while working for a manufacturer in Tokushima Prefecture, also in western Japan, leading to his receipt of the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics.

 

Commercialization is always kept in mind when a company conducts research and development. Yoshino thought of using polyacetylene, a “conductive plastic” developed by scientists including 2000 Nobel chemistry laureate Hideki Shirakawa, as a material for a battery electrode when pondering possible industrial applications. This idea turned out to be unsuccessful in the end, but instead, Yoshino hit on the idea of using carbon, which had similar electrical properties, leading to a groundbreaking invention. It is a good example of the results of basic research being utilized in applied research.

 

In Japan, 70% of research and development costs are covered by companies and the country comes third in the world in the total amount spent after the United States and China. But Japan is starting to lose its presence in the field of electronics. We are tempted to ask whether ample funds are going toward creating an environment in which the creative buds of research can be nurtured.

 

We hope that the latest award will serve to encourage those involved in research and development, and will add vitality to manufacturing in Japan.

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