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'Li-ion batteries can help create fossil fuel-free society': Japan Nobel winner Yoshino

Akira Yoshino is seen smiling after being announced as one of the recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry, at the Asahi Kasei Corp. headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- Akira Yoshino was announced as one of the recipients of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Oct. 9, for his work in the development of lithium-ion batteries. He gave an exclusive interview to the Mainichi Shimbun about his reaction to the honor, and what he thinks the future of the technology will hold.

Yoshino, 71, a professor at Meijo University and an honorary fellow at Asahi Kasei Corp, was hailed by the Nobel Committee for chemistry for the innovation of the chargeable second-cell batteries as a technology that could help humanity overcome problems from climate change by creating a fossil fuel-free society.

In response to such praise, Yoshino said, "I want to actively transmit a message about this technology, to realize a fossil fuel-free society." Below is an excerpt from the Mainichi's interview with Yoshino:

Akira Yoshino is seen speaking at a press conference held to celebrate his announcement as one of the recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry, at the Asahi Kasei Corp. headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

Mainichi: What do you think about The Royal Swedish Academy's praise for the development of lithium-ion batteries as a technology that contributes toward a fossil fuel-free society that could help solve current environmental problems?

Yoshino: For the recent recipients of the Nobel Prize (in chemistry), innovation has of course been of great importance, but it's now not just about that. I feel like considerations such as what contributive effect the research has had toward the environment have become more relevant.

Lithium-ion batteries have seen widespread use in the field of mobile information technology (IT), but when I've debated with European peers up until now, they haven't had much interest in the technology. Perhaps because in Europe they don't do much of their own mobile phone development, they hadn't realized how this technology has advanced.

But once lithium-ion batteries started becoming more commonly used in electric cars, they came to understand that they could be used to help solve environmental issues. From there, admiration for them grew.

For about the last 15 years, my name has come up (as a potential candidate for the prize) but I thought because my field is IT, there was no chance. I think the fact that the technology has become more relevant in tackling environmental issues contributed greatly (to me receiving the prize). In the last five years, electric vehicles have hit the market and we've had real, concrete movement on the issue. That made me think "I might get it (the award)."

Akira Yoshino is seen at a news conference after he was announced as one of the recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry, at the Asahi Kasei Corp. headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

Mainichi: Where do you think lithium-ion batteries could be utilized to help the environment next?

Yoshino: The most important thing is to replace the use of fossil fuel energy with renewable sources. But the amount of energy provided from renewables is highly variable. It can't be distributed to standard households on its own. That's where second-cell batteries will become an indispensable part of propagating renewables.

But it costs a lot of money to set up a second-cell battery solely to collect power for individual home use. Therefore, if lithium-ion batteries in electric cars could also fulfill a role in storing energy, it would become easier for renewable technologies such as solar power to see more widespread use.

By utilizing electric cars that can be used both as modes of transit and power storage, we could ultimately create power stations that produce no carbon dioxide (CO2), and cars also would produce no CO2. I think we could say that would be an ideal situation.

Mainichi: What fields do you think are being pursued for solutions to future climate problems?

Yoshino: Well I think first an outline on how to approach climate problems must be decided on. If we seriously want to create a fossil fuel-free society, we have to decide what is to be done about power generation, what automotive vehicles will be like, what batteries should be like. That kind of thing. If we continue with that viewpoint, we can reach a point where the use of batteries is subject to strict conditions. We have to improve the durability of these batteries, and I think that will become a very important subject of research.

Mainichi: Now that you've received the Nobel Prize, what will you do next in your field?

Yoshino: I'm no longer on the frontlines of research, but I want to contribute to what comes next through discussions with younger researchers. We have to propose a "total design" for society. I think that there needs to be people who will fly the flag to realize a sustainable world.

By receiving the Nobel Prize, my ability to get that message out has probably increased too, and so I will work more actively than before to advocate for change.

(Interview by Etsuko Nagayama, Opinion Group, and Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department)

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