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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Promoting a shift to next-generation energy through catalytic chemistry in electric fields at ambient temperatures

Yasushi Sekine
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Establishing a vision focused on reality

From the field of catalytic chemistry, I am working with themes related to the solution of global problems such as energy and environmental issues. In order for the entire planet to achieve sustainable growth, the shift to a non-carbon society is an essential issue. Catalytic technology holds an important key to realizing such a society. Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal are hydrocarbon compounds which are combinations of carbon and hydrogen. Currently, such hydrocarbons compose 70% of energy resources in Japan. Researchers are working feverishly to develop technology to shift from hydrocarbons to hydrogen, which is expected to be a next-generation source of clean energy. My research is based on themes concerning solutions for next-generation energy. For example, I am researching the catalysts required for shifting away from hydrocarbons and revolutionary shifting process using electric field.

While conducting research, I also serve as a representative of the Hydrogen Manufacturing Usage Research Council at the Catalysis Society of Japan. Furthermore, I am involved with organizations such as the Coal Science Working Group at the Japan Institute of Energy and the Petroleum Chemistry Working Group at the Japan Petroleum Institute. I also assumed the position of Research Fellow at the JST (Japan Science and Technology Agency) in 2011. At the JST, I serve as a member of the Energy and Environment Unit where I formulate strategy for national science technology projects.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying nuclear accident have caused a shift in energy policy. The Japanese government has proposed policies which seek a major shift to renewable energy. However, the amount of power supplied by renewable energy such as solar power, wind power and biomass is currently quite far from the level required to support demand from society. Furthermore, the amount of energy produced from renewable energy is outweighed by the fossil fuel energy required for operations such as manufacturing of solar panels and windmills, transport and processing of raw materials for biomass generation, and supply of the extracted renewable energy.

It is extremely wasteful if producing a certain amount of renewable energy requires using an equivalent amount of fossil fuels. While proposing extreme ideals and working to approach the realization of such ideals, it is also important to implement a short to mid-term perspective of conducting research for more realistic forms of alternative energy. The most immediate issue is to thoroughly increase the usage efficiency of fossil fuels. The current usage efficiency for fossil fuel energy is only about 20%. This means that more than 70% of energy produced is released into the atmosphere and wasted during converting and transportation processes.

Even if we are able to shift towards the use of renewable energy in everyday living, oil is required in order to fly large aircraft. If completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels is impossible, then it is essential to develop technology for increasing the usage efficiency. It is necessary to achieve highly efficient use of heat and electricity, as well as to ensure the utilization of waste heat and to completely use all energy. Technology such as heat pumps and high-efficiency combustion can help to achieve such goals (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

From the perspective of preventing global warming and recycling resources, it is important to achieve the recycling of carbon dioxide which is emitted during the combustion of fossil fuels. Specifically, the carbon dioxide must be returned to oil by performing oxidation-reduction using hydrogen created from solar power (Figure 3). In other words, it is technologically possible to use oil and then recycle the carbon dioxide back into oil. Now, if it is possible to use hydrogen to reduce carbon dioxide, then some people might say that the hydrogen should be used as combustion energy rather than transforming the hydrogen into oil. However, similar to renewable energy, hydrogen energy cannot yet serve as the source of power which support society. Although we must work to realize a society which uses hydrogen energy, it is also important to effectively use hydrogen in a more realistic process for solving problems.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Unexpected turn from aspirations of becoming an architect

Actually, when I was a student, I entered the school of engineering with dreams of becoming an architect. However, I spent too much time playing as a member of the rugby team and I was unable to pursue the popular path of becoming an architect! I then made the decision to major in chemistry, a subject which I didn't enjoy that much. Still, I was unable to abandon my dream of making a living as an architect. As much as possible, I used the system for taking elective courses from other departments and enrolled in a great number of architecture courses. I even studied architectural sketching!

During my fourth year at university, I even received a job offer from a major architectural firm. However, I refused the offer after people around me pointed out that I would be at a significant disadvantage since I didn't graduate from the architectural school. I then entered graduate school through the support of an oil company. The research thesis which I wrote during the master's program received interest from the Royal Society of Chemistry (England), a venerable academic society. This was my first experience of having my research praised from overseas. The experience increased my interest in research and I entered the doctoral program.

My research which received interest from overseas was related to the generation of methanol from methane at low temperatures close to ambient temperatures. Although high-temperature chemistry was quite commonplace, there weren't many researchers attempting chemistry at low temperatures. Ever since then, I have continued to conduct research in catalytic chemistry at low temperatures. When performing chemistry at high temperatures, reactions occur smoothly and much can be accomplished. However, it is very difficult to realize the same results at low temperatures. This difficulty made me want to take up the challenge.

For example, the catalyst of automobile exhaust systems possesses extremely high purification performance. Are you aware that the exhaust gas output by recent automobiles is actually cleaner than the air taken in while driving? However, despite possessing high performance, one problem is that such performance cannot be realized unless the engine is warmed and high temperatures are available for the catalyst inside of the filter. The catalyst is cold for the first five minutes after the engine is started, which means that dirty exhaust gas is discharged.

Solving this problem is a chance for specialists in low temperature chemistry. Since several years ago, I have conducted research and development for a catalyst which realizes high purification performance at low temperatures. My research is conducted jointly with several automobile manufacturers as part of large national projects such as the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) and the Core Research for Evolutional Science and Technology (CREST) at JST.

Realizing a device which creates hydrogen from vodka

Photograph 1: The world's first compact hydrogen manufacturing device operating at ambient temperature and pressure

Recently, nanotechnology has been placed in the spotlight as an advanced field. Although we have never used the term "nano," research and development on the nano level has been common in the field of catalytic chemistry since long ago. For example, nano-level particles of rare metals such as rhodium and palladium are scattered throughout automobile filters. The addition of rare metals increases catalytic reactions. However, the price of such metals fluctuates greatly, sometimes rising to $300 for a single gram. Major cost reductions can be achieved by increasing effectiveness and reducing the amount of rare metal used. I am currently focusing on this research theme, which was selected for the NEDO Rare Metals Alternative Project in 2009.

In addition to low temperatures, another core research area which I am focusing on is processes which use of electric fields in order to add discharge plasma processes. By inserting an electrode into the catalyst and adding a slight electric field, it is possible to facilitate reactions even at low temperatures. Similar to catalytic chemistry at low temperatures, only a few people have conducted research in electrical catalytic chemistry. Therefore, I have been free to exercise my ideas and try many things.

One of my ideas was to develop a compact hydrogen manufacturing device which operates at low temperature and pressure. By incorporating a process known as non-equilibrium discharge, I was able to realize a highly efficient device which quickly generates 70% hydrogen gas simply by pouring in vodka and pushing the power switch (Photograph 1). Under my basic patent, I founded a venture company in 2001 and received grants from the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) in order to conduct experimental research. Although this pioneering research is based on the dream of realizing a hydrogen society in the future, I have already completed the prototype development phase. In the future, I dream of applying the technology to future products such as senior cars for the elderly, electric wheelchairs, and futuristic scooters. I am also utilizing this hydrogen technology to advance the aforementioned catalytic research for automobile exhaust gas.

Expanding the scope of research from current issues

Photograph 2: In seminars, Professor Sekine brings newspaper articles and holds discussions with students regarding a wide range of topics such as social issues and current events. Recent discussions have featured the wave of democracy sweeping through Middle East countries, as well as the bond boom in China.

My motto for conducting research is never to follow in the footsteps of others. Actions which should be taken appear naturally when deeply considering the essence of problems. For that reason, it is unacceptable to focus only on the world of research. It is important that I broaden my perspective to include not only political conditions in oil-producing countries, but also to include issue such as an aging society, international politics, agriculture and food supplies. I instruct my students to expand their scope when searching for actions to be taken. If you don't broaden your scope, you will never encounter an issue of any depth. For that reason, I bring newspaper articles to my seminar and hold debates regarding current issues (Photograph 2).

I have created unprecedented research from nothing, so I didn't receive understanding from those around me for a long time. However, once I held discussions with joint research corporations regarding the essence of my activities, I was able to establish a strong relationship of trust. Although my research was almost ignored at first, the meaning of my activities has gradually become recognized by those around me. My work has grown ideally to include joint research projects and even major national projects. I am currently conducting joint research with several automobile manufacturers, catalyst manufacturers and oil companies. For the past 6 to 8 years, I have conducted an unceasing succession of projects with these manufacturers and companies.

Ideas for research often come to me in my dreams. Within my dreams, I conduct experiments and see specific images of things like how I should insert an electrode. I write such ideas down so that I won't forget. Sometimes I actually try the ideas immediately, and other times I let them sit for awhile. Eventually, these kinds of fragmented ideas combine mutually with accumulated knowledge of current issues and take shape as a single research plan. This is my style of research.

Yasushi Sekine
Associate Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Born in 1968. Completed the Doctoral Program in applied chemistry at the School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo (PhD in engineering). Served as Research Associate in applied chemistry at the School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo, as a Research Associate in applied chemistry at the School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University, and as an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Nanoscience & Nanotechnology, Waseda University. Assumed his current position in 2007. Has concurrently served as a JST Fellow (Center for Research and Development Strategy-Energy and Environment Unit) since 2011 (scheduled term: April 2011 to March 2013). Has received awards such as the Advancement Prize (academic division) of the Japan Institute of Energy, the Research Advancement Prize of the FSRJ (Research Association for Feedstock Recycling of Plastics, Japan), and the Incentive Prize of the Catalysis Society of Japan.