at KRI Workshop '19
Commemorating Nobel Prize in Chemistry at KRI Workshop '19
Dr. Akira Yoshino
Lecture by Dr. Akira Yoshino, Executive Advisor of KRI Inc., commemorating Nobel Prize in Chemistry at KRI Workshop ’19
Introduction by Dr. Tokio Yamabe, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University, and Specially Appointed Professor at Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science
I have known Dr. Yoshino ever since he was a student in the Department of Petroleum Chemistry, Faculty of Engineering, Kyoto University, where I was an Associative Professor. After he joined Asahi Kasei Corporation, we have maintained a good relationship including with events related to KRI, Inc.
The Nobel Foundation announced that the title of Nobel Prize in Chemistry of this year is “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.” I am deeply impressed by this title because the term “lithium-ion battery” definitely originated from Japan. Although English technical terms from Japan seldom become common terms used worldwide, “lithium-ion battery” became one. This demonstrates the great contribution by Japanese people, and something we should be proud of.
It is my great honor to welcome Dr. Yoshino to the KRI Workshop today, despite being more busy than the rest of us can probably imagine ever since the Nobel Prize was announced. Dr. Yoshino has been involved with the KRI Workshop for many years, and today we have assembled a most outstanding audience to hear his lecture. Dr. Yoshino, please.
Lecture by Dr. Akira Yoshino, Executive Advisor of KRI, Inc.
Thank you very much, Prof. Yamabe, for your kind introduction. I hadn’t thought about the significance of the title in the way that you described.
I think it is very great news not only for me but also for today’s audience, as well as everyone engaged in battery technology, that the lithium-ion battery was selected as the subject of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, as announced on Oct. 9. Today, I would like to briefly speak about the award announcement.
In April of last year, I received the Japan Prize. I spoke with the Japanese Emperor and Empress at the time for one and half hours at the banquet. In June of this year, I received the 2019 European Inventor Award. This award recognizes inventions among patents registered with the EPO which are put to practical use and change the world, and I was awarded as the inventor of the lithium-ion battery. And this month, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced.
The lithium-ion battery can be defined as “a secondary battery based on electrochemical intercalation using non-aqueous electrolyte, carbon material as anode, and metal oxide containing Li ion as cathode.” Prof. Whittingham was the first to apply intercalation to batteries, and Prof. Goodenough was the first to propose the cathode containing Li ion. Although I was not the first person to propose using carbon material as anode, I think I was selected this time because I developed the prototype of the present lithium-ion battery combining optimum carbon anode and the cathode material proposed by Prof. Goodenough. Subsequently, as you know, Mr. Yoshio Nishi of Sony Corporation was the world’s first to commercialize the lithium-ion battery, and this was followed by various improvements.
There is one big difference between me and my two co-recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize. The two others established the originality of their research by the publication of academic papers. In contrast, I only applied for patents because I was not allowed to publish a paper as a researcher in industry, even when I discovered the best combination of lithium-ion battery components. As you know, patents are not regarded as scientific literature and have weak significance as evidence of the originality of research. Nonetheless, my contribution has been recognized by the award authorities this time. I think this decision will greatly encourage researchers in industry.
Next, I’d like to talk about the academic origin of the lithium-ion battery. I trace the origins to Prof. Ken-ichi Fukui, who was the mentor of my mentor at university. In 1981, Prof. Fukui was the first Japanese person to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for frontier molecular orbital theory. I see that as the academic origin of the lithium-ion battery. Around that time, polyacetylene, discovered by Prof. Hideki Shirakawa in 1979, gained great interest as a new material. I was also very interested in this material, and I asked Prof. Shirakawa to instruct me how to synthesize it. This was the starting point of my research on the lithium-ion battery. As Prof. Yamabe pointed out, the common concept of this research stream is “π-electron chemistry.” Prof. Shirakawa also received the Nobel Prize in 2000. I dare say, by adding my name to the list of the Nobel Prize winners this time, I think the lithium-ion battery is a fortunate technology to be supported by three Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.
Another feature of this stream should be also noted. Prof. Fukui was a basic scientist exploring the truth, and Prof. Shirakawa found a real chemical compound applying basic theory in an academic sector, followed by me, who developed practical technology in an industrial sector. This shows a typical flow from basic science and technology to practical application. The interval between the three Nobel Prizes happens to be the same 19 years. It took 19 years to embody the results of the basic research as something useful from the establishment of the principle, and further 19 years to change the world with a commercial application. So many years are required. After my Nobel Prize announcement, I met the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as well as the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. I emphasized that the fruits of industry are established on the basic research in academia, and this process takes a long time. I also stressed that the probability of success in basic research is quite low, say 1/100 or so. However, if you abandon the other 99, the essential one is also lost. I shall continue to convey this message from now on.
Next, I would like to talk about the reasons that lithium-ion batteries were selected for the Nobel Prize. First, it is said that the present mobile-IT society has been brought about by lithium-ion batteries. The number of the patent applications on lithium-ion batteries shows a peak from 1995 to 2002, which aligns with the IT revolution (the 3rd industrial revolution). At first, sales of lithium-ion batteries were negligible, but they increased rapidly with the spread of Windows 95. After that, the number of the patent application declined once, and then increased again until now. I understand that this trend is related to the second reason: lithium-ion batteries have great potential to solve the world’s environmental problems.
Here, I wish to present my thinking on the contribution to solving environmental problems. If we give priority to convenience and economic efficiency, then environmental issues may be neglected. On the other hand, if we give priority only to the environmental issues, then the world will become very inconvenient and economically unsustainable. However, I consider what we actually have to do is to achieve convenience and economy while solving environmental problems at the same time. How can this be done? This is the question we must answer. I suppose everyone wishes to realize an environmentally friendly world more convenient and economic than now through the contribution of research and development.
Now, the 4th industrial revolution is in progress, based on the technologies such as AI, IoT and 5G. I think these technologies can be powerful tools to solve environmental problems, though there are various discussions about them. I consider that with good linkage between lithium-ion batteries and these technologies, we can achieve the future world that we seek. My vision for such a future world is depicted produced for the KRI Workshop last year. Now, please watch the movie.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.
October 25, 2019