Interview with LIBTEC President Akira Yoshino, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Part 1: Will lithium ion batteries help solve the climate crisis?
LIBTEC President Akira Yoshino won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for developing the lithium ion battery, one of the biggest industrial game-changers of recent decades. In doing so, Yoshino became the 27th Japanese (including two who became U.S. citizens) to win the prestigious award. LIBTEC, or officially the Consortium for Lithium Ion Battery Technology and Evaluation Center, is a research and development center for the next generation of all-solid-state batteries. The Editorial Department of the DNP Features section that introduces the people making a difference interviewed Yoshino, also an honorary fellow of Asahi Kasei Corp., about the lithium ion battery’s role in solving environmental problems, as well as its potential for the future. The relationship between LIBTEC and Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. (DNP) was also discussed in the 100-minute interview.
- Environmental concerns are more important than convenience in manufacturing
- Lithium ion batteries will spark an energy revolution, helping realize a sustainable society
- AI-enabled electric vehicles will accelerate the sharing economy
- New industries will emerge beyond 2025 as the world goes through drastic change
Born in 1948, Yoshino completed a master’s program at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Engineering and obtained a doctoral degree from Osaka University’s Graduate School of Engineering. After joining Asahi Kasei Corp., he was involved in the research and development of technologies such as glass-adhesive films and the lithium ion battery. He assumed his current LIBTEC post in 2010 and became an honorary fellow at Asahi Kasei in 2017. He received the Medal of Honor with purple ribbon from the Japanese government in 2004 for his achievement in developing the lithium ion secondary battery before going on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. That year, he was also designated as a Person of Cultural Merit and received the Order of Cultural Merit. He has authored several books in Japanese.
Environmental concerns are more important than convenience in manufacturing
Q: Your research, people say, will help solve problems associated with global warming. In January 2020, you became the director of the Global Zero Emission Research Center, a research institute committed to decarbonizing society. How do you think we can solve our environmental problems?
Yoshino: Technologies to date have proliferated because they have made our lives more convenient. Today, however, people are largely satisfied with a range of the advanced, multifunctional products available. So, they are no longer overly interested in more convenient products being introduced thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and other latest technologies.
Making things people desire enough to buy, therefore, requires providing an additional incentive. The key notion here is how products can help protect the environment.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has drastically risen since the Industrial Revolution. That’s a fact. Fortunately, there has been increasing awareness of global warming and for the need to reduce the impacts of human activities on the environment. Companies, therefore, have to strike a balance between the convenience of products, their eco-friendliness and economic viability.
I believe the emergence of AI and IoT technologies will lead to better environmental protection. They are helping us to realize the sharing economy, which was hitherto regarded as impossible. Electric vehicles (EVs), for example, are eco-friendly and gradually entering our lives.
Q: Is it possible that gasoline-powered vehicles will be entirely replaced by electric vehicles?
Yoshino: I don’t think all cars on the street will entirely be replaced by EVs, but I think shared, AI-equipped driverless cars (AIEVs) will proliferate.
This trend will drastically change the auto industry. I project AIEVs will be provided free of charge just like Google provided its Android Operating System free of charge – a move that resulted in its winning a 75 percent share of the global operating system market.
It is essential for automakers to alter their mindset from how to sell vehicles to how people should move around for their future business models.
Q: Is it necessary to adjust the battery’s requirements to facilitate AIEVs’ development and proliferation?
Yoshino: Rapid recharging has been regarded as indispensable in meeting drivers’ needs. The speed of recharging, however, will be less important in autonomous driving because AI is capable of predicting recharging times or making an efficient recharging schedule.
Automakers will not have to worry too much about the cost of production because AIEVs will be shared. Rather, their durability will be more important due to their increased usage.
If a car is shared by 10 people, the cost to each individual will be one tenth. People are likely to demand a battery with a lifespan 10 times longer because each vehicle will be driven 10 times more. We are thinking about a next-generation battery based on such a trend.
Lithium ion batteries will spark an energy revolution, helping realize a sustainable society
Q: Could you tell us what lithium ion batteries are and what they excel in?
Yoshino: They’re rechargeable, and we made them smaller and lighter by improving the electrolyte used. You are probably most familiar with lithium ion batteries used in mobile phones and PCs.
In 1981, when I started developing the lithium ion battery, the proliferation we see today of mobile IT devices was unimaginable. After 1995, in particular, the world went through a radical change due to the IT Revolution, which necessitated long-lasting, small-sized batteries for mobile IT devices. Since then, the lithium ion battery has become a pivotal player which meets the demands of the times.
Now, high hopes are pinned on its use in EVs. I believe it will help attain a sustainable society at a time when batteries are catalyzing an energy/environmental revolution.
Q: How widely are lithium ion batteries used for EVs?
Yoshino: Demand for lithium ion batteries for EVs actually exceeded that for mobile IT equipment in 2018.
Each automaker has compiled a plan for using lithium ion batteries for the next five years. According to their projection, their use in EVs will be 10 times that in mobile equipment in 2025.
Even under these circumstances, the percentage of EVs in the overall sales of new vehicles in 2025 is projected to be a mere 15 percent, while gasoline or diesel-powered cars are expected to account for the other 85 percent.
I believe the world will undergo a drastic change after 2025. AIEVs will radically change the world in tandem with the development of more practical AI and IoT technologies.
AI-enabled electric vehicles will accelerate the sharing economy
Q: What kind of changes will AIEVs bring?
Yoshino: I expect that sharing will become an everyday affair. I imagine the concept of personally owning a car will disappear due to driverless vehicles. I envision cars automatically coming to people when they need a ride. There is a possibility that such vehicles will be useful for providing transportation in depopulated areas.
AIEVs are also promising as an electricity storage system, which is pivotal in facilitating the use of renewable energy to stop society’s dependence on thermal power generation. If we use already-available AIEVs, we won’t have to make a major investment in the infrastructure.
New industries will emerge beyond 2025 as the world goes through drastic change
Q: How do you think the lithium ion battery will evolve in a changing world?
Yoshino: I think lithium ion batteries will proliferate in line with current projections up to 2025. But beyond that, we will see a totally different world from today’s, so batteries with different properties will be demanded.
In fact, the world as we see it today was unimaginable in the 1980s when I started developing the lithium ion battery. I think the world five or ten years from now will be unthinkable by today’s standards, with new companies and industries capturing the global market just like GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) in Big Tech today. I hope such a new industry will emerge from Japan.
Q: What advice can you give to young people bracing for a new era?
Yoshino: A major turning point for the world is approaching and it represents a golden opportunity for young people. To take advantage, young people must brush up their abilities by setting their sights on the future or setting targets for their achievements. I advise young people to invest in themselves by studying so that they can start something tangible by the age of 35. Nobel laureates started their award-winning research at an average age of 36.8. For me, it was 33.
In Part 2 of this article, we ask Yoshino about the next-generation all-solid-state battery and relationship between DNP and LIBTEC, the hub of its development.
- * Publication date: April 6, 2020
- * Please note that the posted information is as of the date of publication.