RD20 (Research and Development for Clean Energy Technologies), the international framework for R&D to achieve carbon neutrality, is run by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST)’s Global Zero Emission Research Center (GZR). Founded in January 2020, GZR is headed by Dr. Yoshino, who is also known for winning the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. GZR runs RD20 and is actively engaged in research on carbon neutrality. We asked Dr. Yoshino, the Director of GZR, about RD20’s strategy this year.
Dr. Yoshino is a renowned scientist in the development of lithium-ion batteries. There are in fact two reasons why he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. One was the contribution of lithium-ion batteries to the realization of a mobile IT society, and the other was based on the hope that his invention will help achieve a sustainable society. Lithium-ion batteries are now used in electric vehicles (EVs) and have become one of the technologies that will help to realize carbon neutrality. EVs are a means of transportation that do not emit CO2 while driving. Lithium-ion batteries have been further developed as storage batteries for homes and office buildings, contributing to the leveling of power loads. This will support the introduction of renewable energy. According to Dr. Yoshino, the collaborative research process at GZR was developed following the renewal of research facilities in April 2021, about a year after he became the director of GZR. Although research on zero emissions and carbon neutrality has been conducted in various laboratories within AIST since the time it was called Industrial Research Institute, GZR has consolidated these efforts and created about 10 research teams, including new themes.
“Prior to the establishment of AIST, there was the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, and there were industrial laboratories in each region from Hokkaido to Kyushu. These were combined into AIST, but research on carbon neutrality was scattered throughout the country. It took about a year to consolidate these efforts into GZR, and we established the research organization in April 2021. As of September2022, we have 313 staff.”
RD20’s research on carbon neutrality can be summarized into three parts. One is the development of new technologies to generate electricity from renewable energy sources represented by new types of solar cells such as perovskite solar cells. Another area is technology that converts secondary energy generated by renewable energy technologies into forms that can be transported. This means technology for transporting energy generated in an optimal location to the place of consumption. Candidates include synthetic fuels made from hydrogen, ammonia, and non-fossil fuels. RD20 is doing research in these three.
For the second area of transport, we are first looking into liquefaction technology for hydrogen. There is also technology for making ammonia (NH3), but for this, the catalyst for reacting hydrogen and nitrogen is important. Even when you make alcohol from hydrogen and CO2, the catalyst is the key point. Although it is old technology, the development of catalysts that allow you to make ammonia at low cost are important. It is said that not much work has been done on catalyst research in the last few decades. However, candidates for catalyst materials can now be narrowed down using Material Informatics.
The third research theme is negative emission technology. This technology has been gaining attention in the last two to three years as a way to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. Specifically, one technology is photosynthesis, where plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere, but the efficiency is low, so we are researching how to increase efficiency. This theme also includes finding new materials. For example, timber absorbs CO2, but there is a need to use genome editing to increase its absorption efficiency. Some solar cells are about 20% efficient, but efficiency is still less than 1% for plants.
In the future, carbon pricing will be introduced as a system that will require emitters to pay when they produce CO2. Since afforestation absorbs CO2 and emits oxygen, introducing carbon pricing in Japan is expected to generate new income and business opportunities.
Another potential material along with afforestation is natural minerals. One of the candidates is basalt, which absorbs CO2, and which is still abundant in the ground. CO2 can be made to react with Ca (calcium) and Mg (magnesium) in basalt to sequester CO2.
Another role of the GZR Center can be seen from the fact that we use the keyword “global” in our name “Global Zero Emission Research Center.” Our RD20 work is part of our efforts to cooperate globally. Since carbon neutrality is not only a problem in Japan, but is a global challenge, RD20 is a global platform for information exchange.” Dr. Yoshino says RD20 has already grown into a platform for collaborative research, with 15 research themes having already been addressed by participating organizations since its launch. Examples include the development of solar cells and that of evaluation technologies.
In terms of collaboration, GZR will promote the combination of research + development + social implementation. In order to place more emphasis on social implementation, GZR organized the Tokyo Zero-emission Innovation Bay and called on universities, research institutions, and companies to come together to promote carbon neutrality. Currently, 130 organizations are members, mainly from industry. The basic tasks are public relations, information sharing, and the exchange of opinions among members, and research meetings are held for this purpose. Dr. Yoshino hopes that the Tokyo Zero-emission Innovation Bay will lead to the launch of new projects among members and the development of new technologies.
There are three main sessions for RD20 in 2022. One is the Leaders’ Session where top officials from each country gather. The other is an international collaborative workshop organized this year to promote material international collaboration among participating organizations, following the issuance of the leaders’ statement last year. The third is a technical session to discuss technology. The themes that have been decided as of now are hydrogen LCA (life cycle assessment) and a discussion on economics, renewable energy generation power and carrier integration, and carbon management technologies for fixing and recycling CO2.
For RD20, as expressed in the word “global,” even countries that are not part of the G20 are welcome to participate. The path to carbon neutrality must open up steadily as we work together on a global scale.