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Recent events have made it clear just how severe the effects of global climate change are becoming. In order to mitigate future problems and reduce our global CO2 emissions, sources of energy that do not rely on carbon fossil fuels will need to be developed. For the past few decades, electricity has been playing a growing role in transportation and other applications traditionally served by oil or gas, but inexpensive long-term storage has been an ongoing challenge. Batteries have been around for more than a century, but until recently rechargeable batteries suffered from problems that made them impractical for large-scale use, such as high expense, low efficiency, short lifespan, low reliability, or hazardous materials.
A Small Device with a Big Effect
This changed with the development of Lithium-Ion batteries, or LIBs. Compared with their predecessors, LIBs are lighter, capable of holding significantly more charge, holding a charge for a longer time, and working much more reliably. LIBs have made it possible for consumers to enjoy a new generation of portable devices, including smartphones, laptop computers, and much more. In addition, manufacturers are continually making improvements to LIB design, so performance and reliability is steadily increasing.
The modern-day LIB is the result of work by chemists and engineers around the world. In 2019, three of the researchers who pioneered its development, John Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham of the United States, and Akira Yoshino of Japan, were honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Citing the many applications that have come about as a result of their innovations, the Nobel Committee said in selecting them, that “they have created the right conditions for a wireless and fossil fuel-free society, and so brought the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Balancing Our Priorities
Speaking recently at a press event, Professor Yoshino, currently at Meijo University in Nagoya and a fellow with Asahi Kasei Corporation, discussed the award ceremony in Sweden, and shared his thoughts on a number of subjects related to his work. “One of the main reasons which was given for the awarding of the Nobel prize was in relation to its contribution for environmental issues,” he said*. I believe that there are three main points which we need to consider. One is of course environmental aspect, the second is economic, and the third is looking at convenience. If only the economic aspects are prioritized, then this would of course lead to negative impacts on the environment. The reverse could also be said, if only the environmental aspects are considered, this might lead to negative effect on the economy or convenience. And what I shared in my lecture is that this fine balance between the three is something we are now approaching in the very near future.”
“The potential for using Lithium Ion Batteries as storage, for example, is in the technology of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, sharing, and also new technologies such as 5G. If these are all able to be linked together in balanced way, then this will open up a whole different future for us.” Citing the example of electric cars, he explained that LIBs have the potential to not only make a huge contribution to the environment, it could have a very significant positive impact on the economy through the use of sharing and the Internet of Things. “It could make the cost much cheaper, with the cost to the individual user reduced to about one-seventh. It could also become more convenient.”
Looking ahead to other applications, Professor Yoshino explained that LIBs have the potential to spread the use of alternative and renewable energy sources. “Using these batteries with solar cells or wind power, these devices could be used for storage and for complimenting these unstable sources of energy is one simple solution for the future.”
More than Just Environmental Benefits
Also considering economic issues, he touched on the concerns of economists and business leaders who worry that turning away from traditional industrial practices fueled by traditional energy sources will necessarily lead to a shrinkage in the global economy. “When we look at environmental challenges, it’s very easy to be backward looking and defensive. But we are actually entering a period where we need to push environmental issues forward. What is necessary to realize is that these environmental issues are a great opportunity for business and industry. There are so many new economic chances waiting for people if they can only catch them. Of course, I hope that they can be seized by Japan, but companies everywhere in the world can take advantage of these innovations, they will make huge contributions to business.”
Looking to the Next Generation
While in Sweden, Professor Yoshino also took the opportunity to visit local schools and talk with children about the environment and the future. “I was very interested in seeing what reaction the children would have to the materials I presented to them, and some of the comments I received were very surprising to me. In particular, that they felt relieved. I had been expecting them to feel moved or awed by this vision of the future, but the fact that they felt relieved by it was surprise to me. It demonstrated that they had fear with regard to the environmental issues that we face. And seeing this vision for the future in what I presented, was a way of easing their fears about the future. This showed that the fact that we have so many debates over environmental issues without actually finding a solution is actually hurting children. And so while of course it will still take a significant amount of time before we can achieve a truly sustainable society, at the very least I believe it is our responsibility to demonstrate as soon as possible the direction we must take.”
*All quotes are via his interpreter, Mary Joyce