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Nobel laureate chemist Yoshino feels 'biggest joy' in contributing to changes in world

Akira Yoshino is pictured smiling with a model of a lithium-ion battery at Asahi Kasei Corp. headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward after this year's winner for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced, on Oct. 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino, who was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two others for their work on the development of lithium-ion batteries, says the biggest joy from successfully developing the technology is that he contributed to making changes in the world.

Yoshino, 71, honorary fellow at chemical giant Asahi Kasei Corp. and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, became a science fan when he was in fourth grade, after his homeroom teacher, who had studied chemistry in college, recommended him a book, "The Chemical History of a Candle" by English scientist Michael Faraday. The young Yoshino became fascinated with the book that illustrates chemical phenomenon using flames as the subject, and read it over and over at libraries.

Aspiring to study engineering, Yoshino entered Kyoto University's fuel chemistry department. The lab he joined followed the school of Kenichi Fukui (1918-1998), who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Yoshino studied under Fukui's pupils. Yoshino says Fukui's theoretical work has contributed to the development of lithium-ion batteries.

In 1972, Yoshino joined Asahi Kasei as he wished to take part in manufacturing in the frontline of a private firm, and was assigned to a fundamental research department.

In the 10 years leading up to the research on lithium-ion batteries, he worked on three different subjects including catalyst, but was unable to deliver fruitful results. The first two years after Yoshino began studies on rechargeable batteries in 1981, he worked alone on synthesis of polyacetylene, an organic polymer used for the batteries that conducts electricity. As a result, he confirmed in 1983 the possibility that the material could be used for secondary batteries that can be recharged again and again.

"That was only the beginning of research and development for the company," Yoshino recalls. To utilize the research result in a product, it was necessary to make the batteries light and cheap to produce. Moreover, it was essential to make sure they were safe. After many years of trial and error, Yoshino succeeded in making his research into a product.

Electronics manufacturers, however, were not keen to purchase his creation. Yoshino visited clients himself to sell the technology. He says, "I could tell that they were interested, but they seemed to take a wait-and-see stance to see if it is usable."

The tide turned in 1995. The number of orders started to increase as laptops and cell phones were becoming common.

It took about 15 years from the start of the basic research on lithium-ion batteries to the technology taking a foothold throughout the world. Yoshino recalls that there was joy and a sense of achievement each time he overcame obstacles, but he says now is the time where he feels most delighted as the rechargeable batteries have increased their presence in the market thanks to the spread of smartphones and electric cars .

"My product has expanded globally and many people use these batteries. The biggest joy for me is that I contributed to making changes in the world," Yoshino says.

(Japanese original by Mirai Nagira and Mayumi Nobuta, Science & Environment News Department)

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