Friday, March 30, 2012

No. 474: The travel distance per charge of an electric vehicle grows longer (March 31, 2012)

SIM-Drive, a venture company specializing in electric vehicles, revealed the SIM-Wil II prototype EV that succeeds the SIM-Wil I launched last year. The company successfully increased the travel distance per change of the new model 30% to 351 km and secured indoor space comparable to that of a full-size car. The new model adopted a lithium-ion battery from Panasonic that has a capacity of 35 kWh, 30% higher than the battery of the former model. The new model weighs 49 kg less than the former model.

The new model has a body size almost the same as a small car with an engine replacement of 1,300-1,500 cc, but it improved the ride quality considerably because the indoor space is comparable to that of a luxury car. Because it employs the in-wheel motor system that incorporates motors in wheels, it has fewer parts of drive-train than the conventional vehicle. It can reach 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. The company plans to mass produce the new model toward 2014. As this case shows, technology of battery and lighter autobody is growing more critical.   

SIM-Wil II from SIM-Drive

No. 473: A special camera to visualize radioactive contamination (March 30, 2012)

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) developed a special camera that visualizes radioactive contamination by improving the high-performance camera mounted on an artificial satellite. Radioactive contamination is displayed on the screen in color in accordance with the intensity level. The agency conducted the substantiative experiment in Fukushima and confirmed that it would be useful for effective decontamination. It modified the semiconductor Compton camera to detect gamma beam for the terresterial application. The new camera has a view angle of 180 degrees.

It is possible to know the distribution of radioactive substances at a glance by overlapping an image taken by the special camera with an image taken by a general digital camera. Large amount of gamma beam is displayed in red. The camera successfully detected gamma beam in a place 20 m away in the experiment, and it enabled the research team to confirm the serious contamination in side ditches and around forests where radioactive cesium tends to accumulate. JAXA continues the research for the practical application of this camera to make it play an important role in the decontamination in Fukushima Prefecture.  

 JAXA's special camera to visualize radioactive contamination

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

No. 472: A system for smaller power consumption and longer travel distance of an electric vehicle (March 29, 2012)

The University of Tokyo and Mitsubishi Motors jointly developed a system that controls the distribution of driving power between the front and rear wheels automatically for smaller power consumption and longer travel distance of a vehicle. The system automatically calculates the driving power and the optimal power distribution using speed, currency, and voltage while a vehicle is running. It calculates the distribution four times in every 1.5 seconds. The research team used a PX-MiEV, a Mitsubishi Motors’ sports utility vehicle, that has motors for each of the front and rear wheels for the development. When compared with a conventional electric vehicle with a 50:50 power distribution of a motor, the newly developed system realized a decrease of about 1 kW in power consumption and an increase of about 20% travel distance for constant speed running of 50 km/h.

The University of Tokyo has been developing a system to increase the travel distance by changing the distribution of motor’s driving power, but the problem with the inability to maintain the optimal distribution because of the heat generated while a vehicle is running remains unsolved. The research team will work on increasing the efficiency in case of frequent acceleration and decreasing the search time to put the technology into practical use. Mitsubishi Motors plans to launch a plug-in-hybrid (PHV) based on the vehicle used in the experiment toward 2013.  

Test drive of Mitsubishi Motors’ MiEV on the road

No. 471: A fuel cell electric vehicle that generates electricity to satisfy 6 days power requirements (March 28, 2012)

Honda developed a fuel cell electric vehicle that can supply electricity to outside. The power it can supply is about 6 days’ power requirements of a general household. The company plans to launch this new vehicle toward the end of 2015. It modified part of its “FCX Clarity” and mounted an inverter for power conversion in the trunk. The FCX Clarity generates power using hydrogen in the fuel tank and supplies up to 9 kW electricity for more than 7 hours consecutively. This is the electricity enough to satisfy the power requirements of a general household for 6 days.

Responding to the requests from the Ministry of the Environment, Honda also installed Japan’s first solar hydrogen station inside the premises of Saitama Prefectural government that does not emit carbon oxide at all throughout the process from the production to the supply of hydrogen. Using its original high-pressure water electrolysis system that integrates the production and compression of hydrogen, it successfully eliminated a compressor to realize a small-size and low-noise station. It can generate 1.5 kg of hydrogen in 24 hours using sunlight and commercial power. The 1.5 kg of hydrogen is enough to run an FCX Clarity for about 150 km. The company verifies the practicality of the FCX Clarity as a mobile power generation unit by asking Saitama Prefecture to use it as an official vehicle.  

Honda's fuel cell electric vehicle - FCX Clarity

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No. 470: Public-private alliance for the development of rare-earth-free products (March 27, 2012)

Business trend
The Japanese government is actively promoting the public-private alliance for the development of technology to eliminate the dependence on rare earths, responding to China’s export restrictions on rare earths. The Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry visited a plant of TDK that produces rare-earth-containing magnets for motors of the next-generation vehicles and announced the resolution to assist private companies with their efforts to develop the technology to eliminate the dependence on rare earths as a country policy.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry decided to allocate two billion yen for a 10-year government-private sector joint research project to develop rare-earth-free vehicle motors. It held the first workshop to discuss research and development trends on how to reduce usage of rare earths jointly with the U.S. and EC last October, and will hold the second one on April 28 this year.

Private companies are also accelerating their efforts to advance the required technology. Mitsubishi Electric developed a rare-earth-free in-car motor based on the principle of electromagnet in alliance with New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). TDK developed a permanent magnet that does not need dysprosium at all. Nidec announced its plan to mass produce rare-earth-free next-generation motors and start to ship them to automakers both at home and abroad starting in 2013. 

Development of a rare-earth-free vehicle motor 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

No. 469: Water treatment membranes are advancing for a bigger share (March 26, 2012)

Toray opened up the prospect for a reverse osmosis membrane used in seawater desalination that can halve power consumption. The substantiative experiment starts this year. Toray’s new product has the strong ability to eliminate ions from seawater with high chemical resistance. Using new materials that interlock inorganic substances and organic substances on the molecular level, the company uniformized the holes on the membrane surface depending on the size of water molecule and succeeded in avoiding clogging while preventing ions from permeating through the membrane. The ion removal rate increased 10-20%, and it can effectively permeate only water molecules. In addition, the new membrane is hard to damage because inorganic substances in the new materials protect organic substances from the chlorine chemical used to cleanse the membrane. Accordingly, it can reduce power consumption by 50%. A small module has already been built, and the company is scheduled to confirm the performance between 2012 and 2013.

Kubota also advanced the water treatment membrane. Kubota’s new product doubles the amount of water that it permeates. The company applied fluorinated resin in place of the existing chlorinated polyethylene and successfully created a membrane that has a shape to facilitate the permeation of water. Because the amount per membrane doubles, the number of required membranes can be halved. Should it be applied to a wastewater recycling plant, electricity used to recycle one ton of wastewater will decrease 40% to 0.5 kW. The substantiative experiment starts this year. Japanese companies including Toray, Kubota, Nitto Denko, and Mitsubishi Rayon have a combined share of 60% in the world market. As the 21st century is dubbed as a century of water, the competition in the world market of water treatment membranes is intensifying. 

 Toray's membrane technology 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

No. 468: A new single-seater 360-degree movable four-wheel vehicle (March 24, 2012)

A research team of Kyoto University developed a new single-seater 360-degree movable four-wheel vehicle. The driver can operate this new vehicle in the same manner that he operates an electric wheelchair. The university is looking for companies for joint research. It can be applied to industrial purposes like unmanned folklift, not to mention to medical purposes like wheelchair.

Named Personal Mobility Vehicle (Permoveh), it has four wheels, two of which incorporate gears with the shape of umbrella that allows it to turn around 360 degrees. The driver turn down the stick to the direction that he wants to travel, but Permoveh cannot travel sideways. Permoveh weighs 200 kg, and its maximum speed is 6 km/h. In the experiment, it climbed a 5-degree slope. The production cost of the pilot unit was about three million yen. The team wishes to decrease the production cost to one million yen before it is put into practical use in three to five years.  
 Personal Mobility Vehicle (Permoveh) in demonstration

Friday, March 23, 2012

No. 467: A new coating with a high optical refraction index to increase the brightness of organic EL (March 23, 2012)

Light emitting diode (LED) is growing widespread rapidly as interior illumination, and organic electroluminescence (Organic EL) is supposed to follow LED. The currently widespread white LED has 100-150 lm per watt, while the organic EL under development has 50-80 lm per watt. Nissan Chemical developed a new coating to increase the brightness of organic EL, and it is confident that the new coating will increase the brightness of organic EL to 100 lm per watt.

The indium tin oxide (ITO) electrode covering the light source has an optical refraction index between 1.9 and 2.1, whereas the optical refraction index of cover glass is about 1.5. Because the difference of optical refraction index between the two is so great, light emitted from a light source returns to the light source after reflecting off the glass and generates heat, resulting in extra energy consumption. The Nissan Chemical’s new coating can adjust the optical refraction index between 1.6 and 1.81 that is the middle between the optical refraction indexes of a light source and glass, making it possible to extract light from the glass effectively. Components of this new coating include a triazine-type organic polymer containing atoms of nitrogen and carbon. It has a high degree of transparency that transmits more than 90% of visible light with a wavelength longer than 400 nanometers. Organic EL illumination generates light closer to natural light than LED. The company plans to commercialize the new product in 2013. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

No. 466: Successful development of a sintered alloy with the maximum stress value of 700 Mpa (March 22, 2012)

NTN, one of Japan’s leading precision equipment manufacturers, developed a sintered alloy with the maximum stress value of 700 Mpa that is the best in the industry. The new alloy has about two times higher stress value than the existing mass-produced products and 10-20% higher stress value than sintered alloys under development in other research agencies. By increasing the strength, the company plans to apply the new sintered alloy to power transmission parts for cutting work. NTN acquired Nippon Kagaku Yakin in 2011. By utilizing this company’s technology on precision metal mold and mass production, NTN wishes to put the new alloy into practical use for automotive gear parts by 2014.

As compared with producing a cutting ingot, producing a sintered alloy has two times higher utilization ratio of material of 95-100% and needs 30-50% less energy in manufacturing. However, because pressing down metal powder is needed to produce a sintered alloy, tiny openings are created inside to produce a sintered alloy because pressing down metal powder is needed. These tiny openings deteriorate fatigue characteristics. That is why sintered alloys have not widely been used for power transmission parts that require high strength. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

No. 465: A new material for the positive electrode of lithium-ion battery with eight times higher charge and discharge efficiency (March 21, 2012)

Professor Yutaka Moritomo of Tsukuba University developed a material for the positive electrode of lithium-ion battery that can discharge in about one second. He applied the Prussian blue analog that allows many electrons at one time to the positive electrode. The new material can charge and discharge at eight times higher efficiency as compared with the existing material. Because the new material is inexpensive and hard to deteriorate, it opened up the way for an inexpensive lithium-ion battery. If optimal negative electrode and device are developed, a high-speed and large-volume charging will be available for mobile phones and electric vehicles.

The new material is a Prussian blue compound made up of iron, manganese, carbon, and nitrogen. It has a jungle gym structure with a grid interval of 0.5 nanometers. Because this grid interval has a width of about five lithium ions, it allows lithium ions goes in and out at high speed. In the experiment, a nanoparticle (with a particle diameter of 50 nanometers) is processed to a one-centimeter-square film and attached firmly to an electrode. After 0.01 milliampere was charged in eight minutes, it was discharged at a time. This generated current of 85 milliampere per gram, and the discharge time was merely 1.1 seconds. Because the new material is not an oxide, it did not deteriorate even after 30 times of charge and discharge. The professor told that the new material has huge potential, though it is necessary to solve the problem with heat generation in discharge to use it for battery.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No. 464: A new coating to increase the power output of a solar battery (March 20, 2012)

Asahi Kasei will launch a new coating to apply to the surface of a solar battery to increase its power output toward the end of this year. The new coating is based on Asahi Kasei’s self-developed Durahikari (Durable light) that is a photocatalyst coating to prevent outer walls of buildings from getting filthy for 30 years. By applying the technology of Durahikari, the company employed composite materials that mixed adaptable organic substances and inorganic substances with high hydrophilicity using its own formulation technology. Besides maintaining the same performance of the solar battery for 30 years, it can be applied to the existing solar batteries.

Applied to the surface glass of a solar battery, the coating increases the absorptance of sunlight 4% to 99%. When it rains, the coating creates water film on the surface to help wash off stains on the surface. It also prevents static electricity from occurring and stains from sticking to the surface. The company started to ship samples in 2010 to solar battery makers both at home and abroad. In Malaga of Spain, it conducted the substantiative experiment for one year and confirmed that the new coating increased power output by 4%. Therefore, on the condition that a photovoltaic generation unit with a power generation capacity of 1 MW generates 1,000 hours per year and the generated power is purchased by 40 yen per kW, the coating will increase the profit from sales by two million yen per year.     

Sunday, March 18, 2012

No. 463: Decontamination technology is advancing steadily for the recovery from the Fukushima disaster (March 19, 2012)

After the March 11 disaster of last year, research institutions are busily occupied in developing new decontamination technologies, some of which are close to practical use. Riken created a trial system to eliminate radioactive substances with the help of algae in alliance with Keio University and Tsukuba University. The system collects sunlight using a one-meter-square and 4 cm thick lens with special surface treatment and sends the light to the glass tube that contains contaminated water and algae using optical fiber, and decontaminates the water while growing algae. Riken tried about 200 kinds of algae and selected brown algae that absorb contaminated substances well. Riken tested the system with 3 liter water with a contamination concentration of 100 Bq per liter, and confirmed that 80-90% of the contaminated substance was eliminated. Algae are easily treated because they decrease volume after they are dried. The substantiative experiment will start in April in the paddy fields and ponds in the disaster-stricken area.

The technology to treat the incinerated ashes containing radioactive substances is also advancing. National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) developed an absorbent using Prussian blue microscopic particles of less than 10 nanometers in diameter. The agency confirmed that the new absorbent eliminated more than 99% of the dissolved cesium, exhibiting about 67-1,400 higher absorption capacity than zeolite. The absorbent reduced the amount of cesium to less than 10 Bq per kilogram in the experiment to mix the new absorbent with the contaminated water with dissolved cesium. Research Organization for Information Science and Technology (RIST) found that an advanced material can absorb radioactive cesium efficiently using its supercomputer. It discovered that cesium atoms get together and form group of three on the surface of a cylindrical carbon nanotube of 0.6 nanometers in diameter. Incinerating the carbon nanotube on which cesium atoms dissolved generates carbon dioxide and ashes made up of cesium oxide. Subsequently, the ashes are collected.

At the same time, Battelle Japan is proposing that U.S.-developed decontamination technologies be applied for the recovery from the Fukushima disaster. The proposed technologies include frothy decontamination agents to be sprayed on concrete and metals, wet sheets to eliminate cesium, and agents for the exfoliation of coat of paint. The recovery from the disaster is in progress, even though steadily.    

Friday, March 16, 2012

No. 462: Ongoing development of bio battery for the post lithium-ion battery (March 17, 2012)

Business trend
Leading companies including Toyota, Canon, Canon, Sony, and Panasonic are developing bio battery. The bio battery creates electric energy from glucose. It is rather inexpensive because it does not need platinum, and it does not emit carbon dioxide. By adding electrolyte, it is possible to let the bio battery create electric energy continuously. The bio battery seems to be the ultimate battery for vehicles. Sony is taking the lead in this field.

The mechanism of the bio battery is simple. Human changes sugar to energy for his activities. Likewise, the bio battery changes sugar to electric energy. Adding glucose to the electrode on which enzyme is fixed allows the enzyme to resolve glucose and creates electric energy. The critical issues are the know-how on how to coat enzyme on the electrode and how to modify the surface of the electrode for higher efficiency. Sony achieved the density of electric output of 10 mW per square centimeter. However, 10 mW is the power that can marginally run a motor. Unless the density is increased to 5-10 times, it is hardly possible to put the current bio battery into practical use.

At the present stage, only glucose is feasible for bio battery. The companies involved in the development of bio battery are considering using wood and plant stalks resolvable into cellulose that has the same composition as glucose. Currently, it is not easy to reduce the production cost of a fuel battery because it needs platinum for its electrode. As a company that launched a lithium-ion battery for the first time in the world in the 1990s, Sony exerts lots of energy to make a bio battery the post lithium-ion battery and invites attention to its development activities from the world.       

No. 461: A dye-sensitised solar battery from a printing company (March 16, 2012)

Dainippon Printing will launch a solar battery that generates power with the light of a fluorescent lamp this April. The new solar battery is the dye-sensitised solar battery that applies the mechanism of plant photosynthesis. That is, it uses the mechanism that a dye emits electrons when it absorbs light. It is made up of such components as electrolyte and oxidized titanium to which dye is absorbed. It achieved conversion efficiency of about 10% even under the fluorescent lamp in the house and office, thought 10% is lower than 15% achieved by a standard solar battery. Because the dye-sensitised solar battery does not need replacement, the company wishes it to be the power source of electric devices.

Several companies are developing the dye-sensitised solar battery, and they mostly apply the structure that glass sandwiches electrolyte and oxidized titanium, but Dainippon Printing used a transparent film instead and successfully made the battery lighter. In an A5 size (148x210 mm), it is about 1.2 mm thick, and weighs 60 g. It generates 400-500 mW. The company plans to apply it to sensors, digital watches, battery-operated point-of-purchase (POP) devices, and electronic paper.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

No. 460: Smartphones with various functions for the elderly (March 15, 2012)

Smartphones are spreading explosively worldwide. However, the elderly sometimes have difficulty handling them because they require initial setting as if they are a PC. Fujitsu developed a smartphone specially designed for the elderly. The company selected Google’s Android for its operating system. Besides simplifying the setting, the company narrowed down the preinstalled functions and incorporated the microphone technology to compensate high notes that people have difficulty hearing as they get older.

With the help of cloud computing, the new smartphone offers various services and functions. It allows the users to provide their health management data to medical institutions by letting them working with scales and sphygmomanometer, record exercise volume using the built-in pedometer and sensor, and transmit the usage history of the elderly automatically to their family members to keep them informed of their whereabouts. The company is scheduled to put the new smartphone on the domestic market this summer, and in the U.S. and Europe toward the end of this year. It plans to increase the shipments of mobile phone 30% to10 million mobiles phones in 2013.      

No. 459: A urethane foam with sound absorbency and radiation performance for HV and EV (March 14, 2012)

Although the hybrid vehicle (HV) and electric vehicle (EV) are quieter than the gasoline engine car, the motor built in these two kinds of vehicles decreases the performance as it grows hot, not to mention that the motor will become noisier as it grow big and powerful. A product that absorbs sound and radiates heat for HV and EV will be in great demand. Tokai Rubber developed a urethane foam with sound absorbency and radiation performance for HV and EV. The company bonded thermally conducting materials with magnet, and added the resultant product to a urethane foam. When the final product is put in the mold and foamed in the magnetic field, the thermally conducting materials align. As a result, heat coming from the motor will radiate effectively. The balance between sound absorbency and radiation performance can be adjusted by the additive amount.

The newly developed urethane has high radiation efficiency and reduces the required amount of thermally conducting materials. Accordingly, it will be 40% lighter than silicon rubber to get the same radiation performance, and the production cost will be halved. Tokai Rubber is producing engine covers made of urethane form, and it applied the accumulated knowledge and technology to the development of this new product. It plans to market the new product to automakers and electric appliance makers as a motor cover. It wishes to put into practical use in 2013.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No. 458: A longer lasting lithium-ion battery at half price of the existing products for vehicles (March 13, 2012)

The competition for a longer lasting and low cost lithium-ion battery is growing harder. Lithium Energy Japan, jointly invested by GS Yuasa, Mitsubishi Corp., and Mitsubishi Motors, developed LEV50N that succeeds LEV50 introduced in 2009. The company successfully improved the performance and reduced the production cost of the LEV 50 thanks to volume efficiency and modification of the composition, and named it the second-generation lithium-ion battery.

The new product has higher durability in a hot environment and more than two times longer life under given conditions. In addition, it improved the response to the risk of thermorunaway greatly and increased the safety of the entire battery unit. Lithium Energy Japan will produce LEV 50Ns in its new plant scheduled to start operation in March. The new plant will produce LEV 50Ns at full capacity this summer, and products for plug-in-hybrid (PHV) will also be produced in this plant.    

Sunday, March 11, 2012

No. 457: A technology to measure vibrations going down to the lower level precisely (March 12, 2012)

It has grown even more critical for every construction company to work out better and inexpensive construction method for more vibration-free and earthquake-resistant buildings since the March 11 disaster in Tohoku. Taisei developed a technology to measure precisely the noise and sound of footsteps going down to the lower level through the floor of apartment. It calculates the vibration of the floor using a computer and estimates the size of the noise. It can reproduce how the vibration transmits through the floor with the help of computer graphic.

The company applied the finite element analysis method to its technology. In the test, it was confirmed that the difference is less than 5 dB between the actual measurement and the calculated value for the noise about 50 dB, though the existing technology produces a difference of more than 10 dB. It can be applied to the evaluation of high-rise buildings from the design stage to decrease vibrations with a lower construction cost. Taisei has already started to use this technology for the apartment buildings it is constructing.   

Friday, March 9, 2012

No. 456: A multilevel bicycle parking lot for 1,000 bicycles (March 9, 2012)

Business trend
The Chuo Shinkansen that uses liner motor trains is scheduled to begin operation in 2027. This new line that connects Toko and Nagoya shows Japan’s tireless efforts for faster railway network. For the opening of this line, redevelopment projects are in progress in major stations. Mitsubishi Real Estate plans to construct a multilevel bicycle parking tower in a new building before Nagoya station. The new parking lot will be a mechanical multilevel for 1,000 bicycles and will be opened in the fall of 2015.

Since the March 11 disaster last year, there is a growing concern about reviewing the means of commuting lately. Coupled with the health fad, this trend will supposedly increase the number of cyclers for commuting. Parking charge is not yet decided. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

No. 455: Preparing for the rapid spread of stringent emission control worldwide (March 8, 2012)

Business trend
Mitsubishi Plastics, world’s leading manufacturer of alumina fibers for vehicles, will increase the production capacity by 10% with an investment of about two billion yen. The company has 80% share in the global market of alumina fibers used for the protection of catalysts to purify gas emissions. Its alumina fiber is a high performance material with high heat resistance that can maintain thermal insulation properties and cushioning characteristics even at such a high temperature as higher than 1,600 degrees centigrade. It is processed to be sheet-like and used to wrap the catalyst.

With the investment, Mitsubishi’s annual production capacity of alumina fibers will increase to 3,000 tons within the year. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will subsidize part of the investment. The regulations on nitrogen oxide contained in exhaust fumes are growing more stringent in China and Europe. In addition, construction machinery will be subject to gas emission regulations in the near future. The company decided to make an investment to prepare for the rapid spread of stringent emission control worldwide.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

No. 454: An advanced research robot for the recovery of the Fukushima power plant (March 7, 2012)

Robot manufacturers across the country are incessantly developing and upgrading research robots for the quick recovery of the power plant in Fukushima. Topy Industries developed a small research robot that can revolve even in a halfpace about 70 cm wide carrying such devices as camera and dosemeter. It employs the rubber underbody and arms to go up and down a staircase. The robot named Survey Runner will be lent to Tokyo Power Plant by the end of this month.

Existing robots need at least a 100 cm wide halfpace to ascend and descend a staircase, but Survey Runner needs only a halfpace about 60 cm wide because it is much smaller thanthe existing robots. In addition, the arms can make it ascend 45-degree wet steps inside the buildings of the power plant. Because it allows for wired operation, it can be operated even if it is blocked by a thick wall. It comes with about 400 m fiber cable, and the operator can run the Survey Runner in a remote place. Even if it overturns, it can recover its feet thanks to its low center of gravity.

Monday, March 5, 2012

No. 453: Panasonic upgrades its solar battery to get better conversion efficiency (March 5, 2012)

Panasonic will launch a solar battery that has the world’s highest conversion efficiency toward 2013. At present, a generation element from SunPower of the U.S. has the world’s highest conversion efficiency in the level of 22%, and Panasonic is following SunPower with 21.6%. Higher conversion efficiency means higher generation per area. Panasonic has been trying to improve conversion efficiency of HIT originally developed by Sanyo. HIT has a structure made up of piled-up amorphous silicon and crystal silicon, and Panasonic will modify the structure and quality of a cell drastically to launch the next-generation HIT. Panasonic successfully increased conversion efficiency to 23.7% at the experimental stage and established the way to increase it to the level of 24%.

Solar battery manufacturers are mostly suffering from low profitability because of the growing price competition caused by glut. Panasonic, however, reportedly secured favorable balance because it focuses on high value-added products. It had about 20% share in the domestic market in 2010, and it supposedly ended with about 25% share in 2011. The company tries to increase its share to 35% in 2012 to become the largest solar battery manufacturer in Japan. Sharp is in hot pursuit of Panasonic because it reportedly increased conversion efficiency to 21.5%. The competition for higher performance and lower price of a solar battery in anticipation of the system to purchase renewable energy to be introduced coming July is intensifying.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

No. 452: A technology to produce butadiene from butene for low rolling resistance tires (March 2, 2012)

Butene is a by-product of the process to produce butadiene and raw materials of acrylic resins in the petrochemical industrial complex, and it is used mainly for fuel. Asahi Kasei, one of Japan’s leading chemical companies, developed a technology to react butene with oxygen to extract butadiene at a low cost. Butadiene is used for high-performance synthetic rubber (S-SBR: Solution Styrene-Butadiene Rubber) for low rolling resistance tires and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) resins for the body of LCD TVs. Demand for butadiene will supposedly grow rapidly, but it can be produced only from naphtha at present. Japan’s domestic butadiene production was about 935,000 tons in 2011. It has been hard to extract butadiene from butene and other chemical products because of cost problem.

The company will build a mass production plant with an investment of 5-10 billion yen in 2014. Supply of butadiene is growing tight, and butadiene was a little below 4,000 dollars per ton in Asia at the end of February this year that is very close to the highest price recorded last summer. It has become a critical issue for synthetic rubber makers and synthetic resin makers alike to secure butadiene. Asahi Kasei will build its first plant in a foreign country in Singapore in 2013. It is the world’s second largest producer of high-performance synthetic rubber following JSR.

No. 451: A new microorganism to utilize diatomite and lignite minable across the country (March 1, 2012)

Hironobe Research Institute for the Subsurface Environment (Hironobe RISE) of Northern Advancement Center for Science and Technology found a microorganism to generate methane gas from diatomite and lignite minable across the country. A microorganism that creates methane from lignite is already available, but a microorganism that creates methane from diatomite was found for the first time in the world. The microorganism was found deep under the ground in Hirobe town in Hokkaido. Diatomite has accumulated dead phytoplankton, and the microorganism eats the dead phytoplankton and emits methane.

The newly found microorganism has up to 56 times higher production efficiency of methane. In the experiment, mixing 5 gm of diatomite with 50 ml of the culture solution created 3.5 ml methane per gram of diatomite in five weeks. Likewise, lignite created 6 ml of methane in four weeks. Dr. Yoichi Kamagata of National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology told that the new microorganism would open up the road to the low-cost effective utilization of underground resources. Although lignite does not serve any purpose because it contains lots of impurities, a mine in a city of Hokkaido alone has reserves of about 2 billion tons of lignite. The research team considers the method to pour the culture solution into abandoned coal mines to convert them as gas field. It plans to put the microorganism into practical use by 2020.