Queen Elizabeth engineering prize seeks innovation for easing life’s hardships

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Nominations are currently open for Britain’s first-ever international Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which has been created to honor individuals for groundbreaking innovation that benefits humanity — and which rewards the winner handsomely with a staggering £1 million (¥123 million).

The prize, whose creation was spearheaded by Oliver Tetwin, minister of state at the Cabinet Office, sprang from “a growing realization within political, business and engineering circles of the need for a pioneering initiative based in the U.K. to focus attention on engineering worldwide,” according to the prize’s official website.

Mostly sponsored by major corporations including Sony and Toshiba, the prize will be presented in London next spring by Queen Elizabeth II herself.

Hiroshi Komiyama, a noted scientist and former president of the University of Tokyo, has been selected as one of 15 judges for the prize, which aims to be as prestigious as the annual Nobel Prizes — but with prize money surpassing theirs, which this year amounted to 8 million Swedish kroner (¥94 million) in each Nobel category.

Komiyama, who is currently chairman of the Mitsubishi Research Institute, sat down with The Japan Times recently to explain the award’s foundation and discuss its possible impact.

A longtime researcher into sustainability, Komiyama also offered his opinions on the ongoing disasters at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — and how best to shift from nuclear to alternative sources of power. The following are excerpts from the interview:

How did the Queen Elizabeth Prize come about, and what is it meant to achieve?

We have many big issues in society — energy, the environment and an aging population, for example. Each of these comes with very complex challenges, and we humans have only our knowledge to deal with them.

However, our knowledge is so compartmentalized, with each researcher digging into a very narrow area of expertise. So our challenges are very complex, but our knowledge is fragmented. Who connects the two together? That is the biggest question we face today.

Knowledge exists not only in universities, but also in companies, nonprofits and households. I feel it’s engineering’s mission to network these bits and pieces of knowledge. Many people associate engineering with building ships and making cars, but the mission of engineering is to meet the demands of society as they present themselves.

I started my career as a petro-chemical engineer and I was very absorbed in my little area of research when I was young. At some point, though, I realized I was doing that research because petro-chemistry was the most advanced solution to the human challenges at that time — but there were many more new challenges at higher levels.

The engineering prizes Japan has established so far, including the Kyoto Prize and the Japan Prize, recognize such concepts and reward work that benefits society — as opposed to the Nobel Prizes, which focus on contributions to basic science. The Queen Elizabeth Prize pushes the social contribution aspect further with regards to engineering.

Do you think there are Japanese engineers worthy of receiving the new prize?

I think so. Japan has engineered many products and systems that have brought tangible benefits to society.

For example, Makoto Sagawa was awarded last year’s Japan Prize for creating the best magnet in the world. In fact, Japan is a forerunner in the field of magnet research, and the one developed by Sagawa is made of iron, boron and a rare-earth material called neodymium, and it’s the most powerful of its kind in the world.

Powerful and lightweight magnets increase the efficiency of motors, which can be used to make cars fuel-efficient — because the heavier the car the more gas it consumes. So, developing new magnets helps to reduce the fuel consumption of cars, which helps the environment.

But what’s important is that just developing this magnet would not have qualified the engineer for the Japan Prize or the Queen Elizabeth Prize. You need to make the magnets applicable to real life.

This magnet, for example, rusts very easily, so Sagawa came up with a special coating technology to make it usable not only in cars but also in refrigerators and other appliances.

Hence he was given the prize because he not only found the best chemical composition for the most powerful magnet — but he also designed it with real-life applications in mind.

Speaking of socially beneficial solutions, Japan’s top engineers, especially ones at the University of Tokyo, have been harshly criticized following the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It’s been said they have deeply entrenched interests in the so-called nuclear village (the pronuclear community led by super-wealthy utility companies and made up of scientific experts, contractors, policymakers and major media figures), and that they have been inept at handling the crisis.

As a former president of the University of Tokyo and chair of its engineering department, how do you respond to such criticism?

One problem was that this expert community — which some call a “village” — was not surrounded by a group of people who could criticize them with adequate knowledge.

And I’m responsible for that, too. The experts had told us that (the nuclear plant’s reactors) were protected by five layers of safety, and we thought that would be okay — but the five layers actually just referred to five safety features, and all of those were destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami on March 11 last year.

The experts’ group, because of its inclination to promote nuclear power, is in a structurally difficult position to internally review the premises of their activities. So outside forces must step in, but those forces were not powerful enough. I think it’s true that the University of Tokyo bears some of the responsibility. So what should we do now? We must create an equally powerful group of critics with considerable expertise.

What kind of people do you have in mind?

I think it would be a group of people who can discuss the experts’ premises, and ones well versed in many different things, ranging from the structure of nuclear reactors to issues of nuclear waste and earthquakes.

I think that, by 2050, experts will be broken down in two types: ones who pursue cutting-edge expertise in their fields, and the kinds of people who will structure pieces of knowledge and make them relate to society. I feel their numbers will be split in half. If we don’t do that, we can’t stop experts from getting out of control.

But you need to have a degree of knowledge on the subjects being discussed. I don’t think it’s possible for philosophers to discuss bioethics with no knowledge of what’s happening on the front lines of biotechnology. So such critics would need a basic knowledge (of science) and they would also need to be capable of understanding technical details if necessary.

You’re also well known as an advocate for renewable energy. A lot of people in Japan say the country should reduce its dependence on nuclear power. So in 2050, how will renewable energy be part of our lives?

What’s most important is increasing energy efficiency. A huge proportion of the world’s energy is spent on heating rooms, but in theory we could bring such energy down to zero.

How could we do that?

We need heating because heat escapes from rooms. If we make our rooms work like vacuum bottles, we won’t need heating. It’s totally feasible to cut energy consumption for heating to one-tenth of current levels.

The same can be said about cars, which also are big energy spenders. More cars will go hybrid, use fuel cells, and the cars themselves will get lighter. The more friction cars have between their tires and the road, the more energy they need. Friction gets greater with the weight of cars, so it’s possible to cut fuel consumption by two-thirds by making (lightweight) cars from carbon fiber — which is already used widely in airplanes — instead of steel. Then fuel-cell cars would consume only one-fifth of the fuel of regular cars.

By multiplying the effects of lighter materials and fuel cells, energy consumption by cars in total could be one-fifteenth of what it is now. If we bring all the cars in the world to that level, it would be very easy to meet the world’s entire energy needs — and renewable energy alone would be enough to do so.

But to get there, we need about 30 more years. I think Japan should take on the leadership role as the world makes a “soft landing” (toward that goal). That way, nuclear power will be naturally phased out.

I understand that you built an environmentally friendly house in 2002.

That’s right. When we compared energy use between our old house and the new one, the amount of energy obtained from outside sources was 81 percent less. And the new house is much more comfortable than the old one.

I’ve been keeping daily data on my house for around 10 years. Of the 81 percent, 58 percentage points come from increased energy efficiency, including improved insularity and energy-efficient appliances such as the fridge. And the remaining 23 percentage points are from the use of solar panels.

If I try a bit harder, hopefully I can bring the outside supply down to zero! That, I think, is really the way forward for mankind.