Industry-academia alliance leads to big payoff

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Akira Yoshino, 71, an honorary fellow of Asahi Kasei Corp. will attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm on Tuesday.

Akira Yoshino, 71, an honorary fellow of Asahi Kasei Corp. and winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of lithium-ion batteries, will attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm on Tuesday.
 In order to promote research and development of technologies such as lithium-ion batteries, that will bring about drastic changes in society, it is essential to strengthen industry-academia collaboration to put the results of basic research into practice, and enhance support for young researchers who will lead the next generation.
 “The discovery of a new material called polyacetylene led to lithium-ion batteries,” Yoshino said on Nov. 11 after meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Prime Minister’s Office to report his win.
 Polyacetylene, a conductive plastic, was discovered in the 1970s by Hideki Shirakawa, 83, a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
 Yoshino, then a researcher at Asahi Kasei, took note of polyacetylene and used it as a material for a prototype of a lithium-ion battery. This experience led to the practical application of lithium-ion batteries using carbon materials.
 The invention of lithium-ion batteries was not a joint development between a university and a company. However, based on his experience of using the outcomes of university research as a starting point, Yoshino stresses the importance of the industrial world and universities sharing the “seeds” of new technologies.
 Yoshino is currently the president of LIBTEC (Lithium Ion Battery Technology and Evaluation Center) based in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, a technology research consortium formed of companies and a national research institute.
 The consortium is working with the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Nagoya University and other universities to develop solid-state batteries that replace liquid electrolytes with solid electrolytes. 
 A total of about ¥10 billion from state funding is to be invested for five years from fiscal 2018 as a project commissioned by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).
 Solid-state batteries are highly efficient and have no risk of ignition. If used in electric vehicles, the range of travel will be greatly increased and accident damage will be reduced. For this reason, solid-state batteries are considered one of the most promising types of next-generation batteries.
 “It is necessary for industry and academia to make all-out efforts to prevent future markets from being taken over by China, the United States and Europe,” said Yasuo Ishiguro, managing director of the consortium.

Compensating for weak points
 In Japan, some university researchers are reluctant to cooperate with companies because they are concerned that their research subjects may be restricted. However, since they were incorporated in 2004, national universities have been forced to obtain outside funding because of a decrease of more than ¥140 billion in subsidies allocated to them by the central government.
 Companies are also losing the capacity to conduct basic research due to cost reductions and intensifying competition over development. Industry-academia collaboration is a means of compensating for each other’s weaknesses.
 Healsio, Sharp Corp.’s hit product known as the “oven that bakes with water,” was created in cooperation with Osaka Prefecture University, which engaged in research on the decomposition of extremely toxic dioxin by high-temperature steam.
 Kyoto University, Denso Corp. and other entities are jointly researching ways to reduce the weight of automobiles by using minutely fiberized wood for things like car parts. The technology is expected to be put into practical use in a few years.