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Persistent Japan green tech leader

From carbon fiber to household power generation and CO2 capture and storage

by Hiroko Nakata

A technology that originates from an invention by Thomas Edison in the 19th century — a bulb filament made of carbonated bamboo — is now considered one of the keys to curbing global warming.

Today, the extremely thin fiber is made of carbonated acrylic fiber, and while it is 10 times stronger than steel it weighs just one-fourth as much.

It is widely used for aircraft wings and fuselages, as well as for automobile parts, contributing to a drastic reduction in their weight and carbon dioxide emissions.

Global warming and surging energy costs have increased the importance of green technologies, ranging from wind power plants to solar panels and biofuel, and how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will top the agenda at next week’s Group of Eight summit in Toyako, Hokkaido.

Japanese manufacturers are at the forefront of technological development to cut emissions, experts say.

“Since Japan is a land lacking in natural resources, it has long made efforts to create technologies to save energy at low costs,” said Kenichi Wada, a researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics.

Carbon fiber is one such example, as three Japanese manufacturers account for 70 percent of the global market.

According to the Japan Carbon Fiber Manufacturers Association, if carbon fiber reinforced plastic is used for half an aircraft’s fuselage, it reduces the weight by 20 percent and cuts 2,700 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Likewise, if the composite material is used for 20 percent of an automobile’s body, it reduces the weight by 30 percent and slashes 0.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year.

“Japanese makers’ carbon fiber has the highest strength and elasticity,” said Minoru Yoshinaga, general manager at Toray Industries’ manufacturing division of advanced composite materials.

One of Toray’s products, prepreg — intermediate sheet material reinforced with resin — is the thinnest and has the highest quality in the global market, according to Yoshinaga.

Toray had the largest share of the global carbon fiber market in 2006, with 34 percent. Japanese synthetic fiber maker Toho Tenax Co. had the second-largest share, with 19 percent, followed by Mitsubishi Rayon Co.’s 17 percent. The remaining market share was divided among seven U.S., European and Taiwanese firms, including Hexcel Corp. and Cytec Industries.

Toray first introduced the product to sports equipment that require strength and elasticity, including golf club shafts and fishing rods, and continued to improve the quality.

As a result, the fiber now under development is five times stronger than the original produced in the early 1970s. Looking to the future, Yoshinaga said it has the potential to become 10 times stronger than the current level.

But it was not all smooth sailing for the Japanese synthetic fiber makers to achieve such technical advancement.

Due to the huge development costs, the carbon fiber business remained unprofitable for companies for decades.

Many U.S. and European counterparts withdrew from the business in the 1990s, but the product’s huge potential made the Japanese makers decide to stick with it.

There were meanwhile technical hurdles to overcome. Toray’s Yoshinaga said one was to stop carbon fiber from cracking when used in aircraft.

Since carbon fiber reinforced with plastic becomes solid when heated, fuselages and wings that used carbon fiber could potentially crack in bad weather, such as hail. Therefore, Toray integrated the material with plastic particles that tend to soften in heat to prevent cracking, Yoshinaga said.

Thanks to such efforts by the industry, carbon fiber is now used in Boeing Co. and Airbus S.A.S. aircraft, and will be a key component of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s planned regional jet.

The fiber is being used in auto bodies and parts, in satellites and space shuttle doors, uranium centrifuges and in electric cable cores. The fiber also reinforces bridge piers and building girders.

Industry insiders believe the global market will continue to grow.

“One of the markets that is expected to expand sharply is automobiles. Even small parts of bodies will require tremendous amounts (of carbon fiber),” Yoshinaga said.

Toray said considering the potential demand, the global demand for carbon fiber in 2012 is estimated to double to 69,000 tons from 35,000 tons last year.

Because of the high costs, carbon fiber is currently only used in the bodies of about 4,000 cars priced at ¥30 million or more each and in parts of cars selling for ¥5 million or more.

But if the material is used in the bodies of less expensive cars, the demand could increase more than tenfold, according to Toray.

Japan is also ahead of other countries in developing technologies that can slash household carbon dioxide emissions.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. announced in April that it had developed a home-use polymer electrolyte fuel-cell cogeneration system with the world’s most efficient power-generation.

Four other Japanese makers — Ebara Corp., a Nippon Oil Corp. unit, a Toshiba Corp. unit and Toyota Motor Corp. — have also developed similar devices. They all plan to mass-produce their products in the business year that ends in March 2010.

“Among numerous environmental technologies, Japan has an advantage in this (home fuel-cell cogeneration system) field,” said Akira Kadota, a manager at Matsushita’s public relations, adding that Japanese makers are the only ones that will commercialize the system in the near future as overseas makers lag far behind.

Cogeneration produces both electricity and heat. The system can convert up to 39 percent of energy, generated through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, into electricity at 750 watts, which is what an average household consumes in an hour, Matsushita said.

Exhaust heat from the chemical reaction can be used to heat water.

When a household uses the same amount of electricity and hot water, the cogeneration system can reduce energy consumption by 22 percent.

It can also cut the emission of carbon dioxide by 12 percent, Matsushita said, adding that it aims to sell as many as 1,000 units in the next business year and is also considering entering overseas markets.

The company also aims to sell the system for around ¥500,000 in 2015. It said its challenge will be to lower its price by using a smaller amount of platinum, which is used as a catalyst to produce the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water.

While no single technology can drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, new technology to capture and store carbon dioxide appears to be another option to help curb the green house effect because fossil fuels will continue to be the primary source of energy, some say, for at least the next few decades.

The technology first takes carbon dioxide out of exhaust gases from factories and sends it deep underground through pipelines, for example to depleted oil fields, to permanently trap the emissions.

Following companies in Norway, Algeria and Canada, which are already in the carbon dioxide capture and storage business, MHI became the first Japanese company in 1999 to commercialize a process to recover carbon dioxide from flue gas to use it at plants, for example to make urea.

It is now at its next stage of studying technologies to store carbon dioxide.

The heavy machinery maker said it has already sold seven of these carbon dioxide recovery systems to domestic and overseas facilities.

On May 26, 24 Japanese firms in the field of electric power, petroleum, steel, chemicals and engineering set up a new firm aiming to develop carbon dioxide capture and storage plant facilities.

“Since Japan lacks natural resources, it is its mission to create products that can contribute to the world,” said Wada of the Institute of Energy Economics.