National / Science & Health

Nobel laureate Akira Yoshino calls on youngsters to pursue new challenges

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Akira Yoshino, 71, who on Wednesday was named one of three laureates of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on lithium-ion batteries, which power countless electronic devices, wants younger generations to challenge untapped fields of science with a curious mindset toward the unknown, something that led him to his own success.

“There are many fields that haven’t yet been discovered and I want (younger researchers) to challenge the unknown and pave new ways, without following the paths of others,” he said during a news conference held at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo on Thursday.

He said such an approach led to his contributions to the development of the widely used power source, which has become indispensable for cellphones and other electronic devices in everyday use.

“I want young people today to have bold curiosity,” he said.

He said, however, that the fruits of his studies didn’t come overnight. He explained that it was the hardships he faced throughout his work that actually led him to success.

“I believe that any research resembles a marathon race with numerous challenges on your path you need to overcome — that gives you the strength to continue the race and brings you one step closer to your goal,” he said.

Yoshino, who was born in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, became interested in chemistry as a fourth-grader at elementary school, when his teacher introduced him to “The Chemical History of a Candle,” a collection of lectures by 19th century British chemist Michael Faraday.

The lectures used a burning candle to explain chemistry to young people and science novices at that time. Yoshino bought the book and immersed himself in it.

But Yoshino didn’t only focus on chemistry. Before he entered Kyoto University’s Faculty of Engineering, he first delved into archaeology, an experience he believes gave him a fresh perspective and broader view that helped him continue his studies.

He is currently a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya and an honorary fellow of Asahi Kasei Corp., where he started his career in 1972. He said had he followed a different career path and pursued only one field of expertise, he wouldn’t have succeeded.

“If my research were solely focused on lithium-ion batteries, I would have never come up with an idea,” he said.

He said he also owes his success to fate.

Yoshino shared the prize with American John B. Goodenough, 97, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, and Britain’s M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Yoshino said he was lucky the other two were engaged in related studies at the same time.

Yoshino said the trio’s invention has quite a bit of room for improvement.

“The existing lithium-ion batteries are still too slow,” he said.

Yoshino, Goodenough and Whittingham will share an award of 9 million kronor (about ¥98 million), a gold medal and a diploma. They will receive them at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Yoshino said that he was not planning to wear a kimono because “it doesn’t suit me at all.”

Addressing his wife, Kumiko, 71, who sat beside him during Thursday’s news conference, Yoshino said he must have been a burden throughout the years he spent researching lithium-ion batteries.

“But I want you to share my joy that comes at the end of a series of challenges we’ve been through,” he said.

Yoshino’s wife, whom he met during his university years and shares a passion for archaeology and hiking with, said the announcement surprised her and made her feel “as if I were living a dream.”

“Thank you for the greatest gift,” the wife replied.

Kumiko Yoshino portrayed her husband as an honest person who has always been concerned about problems confronting civilization. She also described him as stubborn and said while laughing that Yoshino refuses to listen to her warnings that smoking will make him sick, quoting him as replying that the stress would make him sick anyway.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5