The search for high-tech materials in Japan

Japanese materials companies are on the hunt for the next big thing in the high-functional materials market. While three makers — Toray Industries, Teijin and Mitsubishi Rayon — currently dominates the global carbon fiber market, with a combined share of about 60%, other companies are pushing to develop new — and more profitable — materials now that competition with Chinese and South Korean rivals is pushing prices lower.

Among the products being developed are a superthin, lightweight carbon material and a material that can work like electrodes to detect the heartbeat.

At Osaka Gas’s Energy Technology Laboratories in Osaka, a compressor rhythmically sprays out a black liquid at high speed. The liquid is then filtered and dried. The resultant powder is a carbon material called graphene, for which two scientists received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010.

Graphene is an ultrathin material composed of carbon atoms. It is over 100 times stronger than steel and conducts electricity and heat about 10 times more efficiently. Graphene produced by Osaka Gas “can be mixed with resin to make any shape and is easier to handle than carbon fiber,” explained Hiroki Sakamoto, a researcher at the lab.

The company sees many potential applications for graphene, such as electrodes for battery cells and heat sinks for automobiles and smartphones. Osaka Gas currently supplies the material to resin makers and others on a trial basis. It plans to start full production as early as this year.

Adeka was licensed by the University of Tokyo to produce graphene and plans to start commercial production by 2020.

According to Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, the global graphene market is expected to grow from 1.3 billion yen ($10.9 million) in 2013 to 100 billion yen in 2030.

Nippon Paper Crecia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nippon Paper Industries, is placing its bet on cellulose nanofiber, which contains fibers as thin as 3-4 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The surface of these fibers easily attracts silver and other ions, and can thus function as a deodorant. The company says that because of the new material, its Hada Care Acty adult diapers, launched last fall, are three times more effective at reducing the odor of urine and feces than its previous offerings.

The ultrathin plant fibers are lightweight and can be mixed with resin to make parts that are light but strong. “The material could find a lot of applications in the future, such as in auto components,” said University of Tokyo professor Akira Isogai, whose chemical-processing technology helped make the material a reality.

Japan’s annual production capacity for cellulose nanofiber was about 60-70 tons as of last summer, but that figure is expected to grow. Nippon Paper Industries, which supplies the material to Nippon Paper Crecia, plans to boost capacity more than tenfold from the current 30 tons in the fiscal year starting in April. “We want to make cellulose nanofiber one of our revenue sources,” President Fumio Manoshiro said.

Chuetsu Pulp & Paper plans to start mass-producing the material in fiscal 2017.

Cellulose nanofiber is made from wood chips, which are abundant in Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has set a goal of boosting the market, including car parts and electronic components made of the material, to over 1 trillion yen in 2030.

Cost hurdles

“The problem is costs,” said the head of Hokuetsu Kishu Paper’s Central Research Laboratory. A kilogram of cellulose nanofiber costs 5,000 yen to 10,000 yen, and the same amount of graphene costs more than 20,000 yen. In contrast, a kilogram of automotive-use carbon fiber costs only around 3,000 yen.

Carbon fiber has become less expensive due to surging demand for use of the material in a growing range of products, from golf clubs to aerospace parts. The key to making the latest materials more affordable — and popular — will be to find more applications for them.

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