New technology for critical metals, agribusiness, nuclear plants, 3-D printing, renewable energy — you name it, Japan’s there
Having spent a few weeks (involuntarily) accompanying various shopping expeditions in Paris, I have become — suddenly — aware of Uniqlo. The crowds of women of all ages lining up at the cash registers at one of its Paris stores attests to the extraordinary success. And I read that staff are allowed just 60 seconds to process each retail transaction. Now this Japanese designer of casual wear is planning to launch in Australia, with a target of 100 stores in this country.
The Uniqlo phenomenon, and I am assured by the shopper in this household that it is a phenomenon, lies in sharp relief to the often portrayed image of a nation that is past its peak — its population ageing and in decline, a country which has been in a largely deflationary economic mess for nigh on 20 years, an industrial powerhouse now overtaken by China and with South Korea yapping at its heels, and with changing governments that never lead to much change in the country.
Yet at one level you have Uniqlo, and at another the extraordinary technology breakthroughs that are occurring in Japan. Having spent about 35 hours aboard Japan Airlines planes in the past few weeks (and having thus become a convert to the Dreamliner over previous favourite the Boeing 777) I was struck while reading Japanese newspapers at the reports of industrial advances being made in the country.
So, back in Sydney, I have just culled a few items from the Nikkei news service this week to show what I mean.
Technology Metals: Two companies have announced progress in making the lithium-ion battery less likely to catch fire (consoling news for we Dreamliner lovers). The advance is seen as mainly helping the electric car industry, and will also be good news to producers of lithium and graphite which go into these batteries. Daikin Industries and Nippon Kodoshi have developed ways to improve heat resistance in the batteries, an advance that will eliminate the need for a battery cooling system in electric cars, making them lighter. Daikin used fluorine to reduce flammability, then added a heat-resistant adhesive agent. Nippon Kodoshi went down another path: it created a membrane that keeps electrodes apart but still allows the flow of ions. Lithium-ion batteries at present must be kept below 45⁰C.
Agribusiness: Japanese companies are working to produce new agricultural and fishery technologies. For example, Murakami Farm has developed broccoli sprouts that boost the antioxidant sulforaphane content by 20 times. Nikkei reports that Sakata Seed has evolved tomatoes resistant to tomato yellow leaf curl along with cucumbers and corn plants that can withstand typhoons. And researchers at Okayama University have found a way to have both freshwater and salt-water fish in the same tank by adding three substances including sodium. This is being seen as a breakthrough for fish farming in arid regions of the world.
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3-D technology: The Japanese want to crack the Western domination of 3-D printing. A new research association has been established by three universities and 27 companies (including Panasonic and Mitsubishi) to develop and market high-performance 3-D printers for medical and aerospace applications (artificial joints and aircraft components being high on the priority list.
Meanwhile, Nippon Steel is installing a new atom probe which will allow the company to study steel being made and map the results in 3-D. By studying the various mixtures of carbon and silicon, which affect strength and tolerance, Nippon Steel believes it can develop new types of steel.
Renewable energy: Panasonic has developed a solar generator suited to developing countries with areas not served by grids. More importantly, they are affordable (unlike previous models) largely because costs of batteries and solar panels have fallen so much. Importantly, these units can be operated by people with only a basic knowledge of electricity. Each unit provides enough electricity to power computers, lights and fans for a 150-pupil elementary school.
Nuclear Energy: The Japan Atomic Energy Agency thinks it has cracked the problem of dealing with radioactive waste, having come up with a transmutation technology that can turn long-life radioactive materials into less potent materials, such as transforming neptunium into ruthenium, the latter not emitting radiation, or by turning strontium 90 into strontium 89 and reducing its half-life — the time taken for isotopes to lose 50% of their radioactivity — from 29 years to 50 days.
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