National / Science & Health

Akira Yoshino, winner of Nobel for work on lithium-ion batteries, sees tech as environmental fix

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Midway through the 1800s, the English scientist Michael Faraday had the forethought to deliver a series of lectures on an object that was commonplace in Victorian Britain, as a way to get young minds hooked on science.

He chose a candle.

A century later, a newly appointed elementary school teacher in Osaka familiar with Faraday’s book “The Chemical History of a Candle” introduced it to her class.

One of her students was Akira Yoshino.

As Faraday predicted, and as Yoshino’s astute teacher surely understood, “there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of science, than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.”

Yoshino, 71, who along with Briton Stanley Whittingham and American John Goodenough was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of lithium-ion batteries, often cites Faraday’s book as the reason why he pursued a career in chemistry and scientific inquiry, first as a student at Kyoto University and then at Asahi Kasei, where he has spent his entire career as a research scientist.

During a recent interview at Nagoya’s Meijo University where he is a professor, Yoshino spoke about the effect the book had on him, and on turning him toward chemistry.

“The Chinese characters for chemistry are 化学 (kagaku) and these characters mean that ‘one thing transforms into another thing.’ It’s this process of transformation that really interested me.”

In 1982, it was the work of another scientist, this time in a science paper that Yoshino had finally got around to reading while cleaning out his lab, that would have a huge impact on Yoshino’s research and help usher in the wireless technological revolution.

The paper, by fellow Nobel laureate Goodenough, set Yoshino on a new path that resulted in the invention of the lithium-ion battery — a rechargeable battery that is now ubiquitous.

Yoshino’s breakthrough was to fill the anode, at one end of the battery, with a carbon-based material, and put lithium cobalt oxide in the cathode, at the other end. By 1985, Yoshino was ready to patent the prototype of the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery.

The batteries now power everything from smartphones and laptops to digital cameras and electric bicycles. They’re used to power the next generation of electric vehicles such as Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf and Tesla Inc.’s lineup of cars, and even new shinkansen trains use lithium-ion batteries as backup energy storage in case of emergency. It’s doubtful the era of the portable gadget would have gotten off the ground if Yoshino hadn’t packaged science and technology into the battery that keeps on giving.

Asahi Kasei Corp. honorary fellow Akira Yoshino holds up a bouquet on Oct. 9 in Tokyo after winning this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. | KYODO
Asahi Kasei Corp. honorary fellow Akira Yoshino holds up a bouquet on Oct. 9 in Tokyo after winning this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. | KYODO

In awarding the “lithium-ion trio” the Nobel in chemistry, the committee commended them for creating “a rechargeable world.”

“Through their work, they have created the right conditions for a wireless and fossil fuel-free society, and so brought the greatest benefit to humankind.”

“I think that second reason was more important to the (Nobel) committee,” Yoshino said, referring to the grave need to move beyond burning fossil fuels.

“They’re acknowledging the fact that the lithium-ion battery is a powerful technology that can provide a solution to environmental problems.”

Like many employees in Japan, Yoshino wears a badge to signify where he works. In his case it’s a small rectangular badge bearing the name of Asahi Kaisei on the lapel of his suit. Below it, though, he wears a larger, more colorful badge: a multicolored wheel representing the 17 sustainable development goals the U.N. has committed to achieving by 2030.

Ahead of the award ceremony next month in Stockholm, Yoshino said he has been giving considerable thought to the natural environment — and its degradation — in preparing for his speech.

“Since I am provided with this opportunity to speak in front of everyone, I would like to share a message that I feel strongly and deeply about,” Yoshino said.

Yoshino said Japan, which is increasing its reliance on coal energy, should shift more to renewable energy. And lithium-ion batteries, instrumental and essential in storing power, can help Japan and other countries rely on more renewable sources.

“In this sense, the lithium-ion battery plays an important role since it can store surplus energy (from renewable sources) and supply it when necessary. Thus, as a result, the development of the lithium-ion battery will help the growth of renewable energy.”

When the ceremony is over, and Yoshino is “recharged,” he plans to keep on working, dividing his time between his long-term research base at Asahi Kasei and his teaching duties at Meijo University.

With his share of the 9 million kronor (about ¥98 million) award that comes with the Nobel, Yoshino plans to set up the Yoshino Research Fund, to be administered by the Chemical Society of Japan. The fund will be used to support research carried out by members.

Teaching, in the formal sense, is relatively new for Yoshino. He was appointed professor at Meijo University in 2017, where he teaches alongside Isamu Akasaki, a 2014 Nobel laureate physicist.

When asked what advice he would have for parents in guiding young learners, Yoshino’s prescription is simple: Encourage, don’t push.

“I think parents should encourage their children to have an interest in something. However, they must not push them.”

Perhaps someday, Yoshino will take an everyday object from this century — one that he knows intimately — and write a chemical history about it, thereby opening the door into the world of science for generations of children far into the future.

“When a child becomes interested in something after being given the right stimulus, they will naturally find their own way of pursuing it.”

Haruka Iwamoto contributed to this report.