Akira Yoshino, an honorary fellow with Asahi Kasei Corp. and a professor at Meijo University, won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry along with two other scientists for the development of lithium-ion batteries, technology that is used in smartphones and other devices that have become essential to our everyday affairs. They indeed deserve the prize for developing what the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called a technology that “revolutionalized our lives” and for laying out “the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”
Lithium-ion batteries were commercialized in the early 1990s. Due to their far higher performance than earlier generations of rechargeable batteries, the small, lightweight power cells have become indispensable in a wide range of electronic devices such as video cameras, portable computers and cellphones.
The technology enabled people to use such devices in places where access to power is unavailable. In recent years its use has expanded to vehicles, and there are expectations that its application in power storage devices will help achieve a stable supply of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind, thereby expediting the move away from fossil fuels.
Various people have contributed to the development of lithium-ion batteries. Britain’s Stanley Whittingham created an innovative cathode in a lithium battery from titanium disulfide in the 1970s that could store lithium ions. American John Goodenough, predicting that the cathode would have greater potential if made from a metal oxide, demonstrated in 1980 that cobalt oxide could help create more powerful batteries. Based on the research by Goodenough, Yoshino used a carbon material in the anode and in 1985 created the first commercially viable lithium-ion batteries.
Yoshino says it was his “curiosity” that mainly motivated his research. “The real form of lithium-ion is full of mystery. If I go back to the basics of my research, I could discover ideas and technology different to what we have now. It’s very exciting,” he said during a news conference after he was awarded the prize.
What is notable about Yoshino’s achievement is that he pursued his research in the private sector throughout his career. As a corporate researcher, Koichi Tanaka, now a senior fellow with Shimadzu Corp., won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2002 as an engineer with the firm, for his contributions to the study of proteins that have paved the way for development of new medicines and early cancer diagnosis. In 2014, Shuji Nakamura, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara won the physics Nobel for developing the groundbreaking blue LED technology as a researcher with Tokushima-based Nichia Corp. in 1990.
Their achievements testify to the strong research capabilities of many Japanese companies. But as was the case with most other Nobel laureates, Yoshino was awarded the prize 20 to 30 years after his research bore fruit. Most Japanese Nobel laureates since the turn of the century have been awarded the prize for their research achievements in the 1980s.
Today, Japan’s research capability, as indicated by the output of research papers quoted by other researchers, is reportedly on the decline. This is also the case in the corporate sector, which accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s roughly ¥19 trillion in annual research spending.
After the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s, many Japanese firms streamlined their research operations under a “selection and concentration” strategy, and electronics and pharmaceutical makers slashed research spending. Redistributing profits to shareholders became a priority, and some big companies reportedly shun research projects that take several years to bear fruit. The global recession following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers has also added pressure on Japanese firms to reduce their research spending. Japan trails such countries as the United States and Britain in nominal growth of corporate research spending since 2000, and lags far behind China and South Korea.
The research environment at universities and other institutions that produced many Japanese Nobel laureates seems no more promising. They are said to be at a crossroads as to whether they can maintain their research capabilities. The number of students who go on to pursue doctoral degrees is shrinking. Following the news of his award, Yoshino expressed concern over the declining basic research capabilities of Japanese universities.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Yoshino should provide us with an opportunity to see whether Japanese companies and universities are investing enough resources in innovative research that has the potential to radically change people’s lives for the better.