Powering billions of devices: Akira Yoshino named European Inventor Award 2019 finalist

  • Japanese chemist and engineer Akira Yoshino nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for inventing and refining lithium-ion battery technology
  • Yoshino invented the first modern lithium-ion battery in 1983 by introducing a safer anode material and a heat sensitive membrane, and has continued to improve it during his long career
  • His invention has kickstarted an age of global connectivity and electric mobility by enabling the emergence of portable electronic products and electric vehicles

Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Japanese chemist and engineer Akira Yoshino has been nominated
for the European Inventor Award 2019 as one of three finalists in the category “Non-EPO countries” for his invention and refinement of the lithium-ion battery, which now powers billions of devices around the
globe.

Yoshino has pioneered
industrial research and development to identify the materials and features that
now make lithium-ion batteries work safely. He continues this work today as an
advisor and honorary fellow at the Asahi Kasei Corporation, the company where
he developed his technology and which has commercialised it worldwide.

“Akira Yoshino created
the foundation of today’s lithium-ion technology and industry,” said EPO President António
Campinos about Yoshino’s nomination as a finalist for the European Inventor Award
2019. “He put a new type of rechargeable battery at our disposal, and
this has had a significant impact on the society in which we live by connecting
people through the mobile devices it powers.”

The winners of the 2019
edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in
Vienna on 20 June.

From disposable to rechargeable

Batteries are a necessity
of modern life, allowing us to use a wide variety of portable electronic
devices. The most widespread today is the lithium-ion battery. Prior to its
invention, all electronics ran on mains electricity or batteries that released
the energy stored in their chemical bonds through irreversible reactions. As a
result, users had to discard batteries when the energy contained in their materials
ran out. This posed a problem for manufacturers developing portable electronic
products, such as video cameras, notebook computers, and mobile phones, during
the 1980s. These new products needed a small, lightweight, rechargeable battery
with a sufficient storage capacity. However, the conventional rechargeable
batteries being developed at the time, such as lead-acid batteries and
nickel-cadmium batteries, were too heavy and bulky for use in handheld
applications.

Scientist Akira Yoshino’s
work would eventually help to bring a solution to this problem. After completing
a Master’s degree in petrochemistry at Kyoto University in 1972, Yoshino joined
the research division of Japanese chemical company Asahi Kasei Corporation where
he today continues to serve as an advisor and honorary fellow. His early research
focused on electrically conductive polymers – particularly polyacetylene –
which had the potential to be used as an anode material in batteries. While
lightweight metallic lithium could not be used due to the danger of explosion,
Yoshino became convinced through his work that a new approach using a safer
material was possible.

His research led him to
develop a new type of battery with a polyacetylene anode and a lithium cobalt
oxide cathode. Both materials had newly discovered properties: polyacetylene had been demonstrated as conductive in
1977 by Japanese chemist Hideki Shirakawa, while lithium cobalt oxide had been
discovered as stable in air by US physicist John Goodenough in 1979. Using
these materials meant that Yoshino’s battery was more stable than the other
rechargeable batteries in development at the time, which were often highly
flammable. Yoshino also introduced a thin polyethylene-based porous membrane to
act as a separator between materials. This membrane served a safety function:
When it melted it halted the operation of overheating batteries before they
caught fire. This chemical equivalent of a safety fuse is
still currently used to lessen the risk of lithium-ion batteries catching fire.
Advances in safety continue today and have been key in allowing manufacturers
to bring lithium-ion batteries out of the laboratory and into consumer
products.

The first lithium-ion
battery was produced in 1983. In the same year the Asahi Kasei Corporation filed
the original Japanese patent application for Yoshino’s rechargeable lithium-ion
battery, beginning its road to commercialisation. Yoshino continued working, bringing
new improvements to his technology; notably in 1985 by replacing the material
used for one electrode in his batteries with a more efficient carbon-containing
substitute so that the battery could sustain many charging and discharging
cycles. He boosted the battery’s performance by introducing an aluminium and
copper foil connector and an organic solvent electrolyte to increasing its
voltage – from 1.5 to over 4 volts – and giving it a higher storage capacity.
Further patents have helped to protect these solutions, and today Yoshino is
named as inventor on 56 Japanese patents and 6 European patents. These many improvements
have helped the lithium-ion battery transcend other battery technology and develop
into a commercial success.

Supercharged global market

Yoshino’s invention has helped unlock a mass market in
portable electronic devices, ranging from camcorders to laptop computers. His
rechargeable batteries are used in nearly five billion mobile phones worldwide
today. His inventions have also enabled the emergence of electric vehicles; the
application of lithium-ion batteries to the electric vehicle is advancing at a
rapid rate.

For the
Asahi Kasei Corporation, where Yoshino has worked since the 1970s, his original
invention and subsequent improvements continue to be highly significant. “The idea
of licensing our patents has enabled a lot of companies to produce the
lithium-ion batteries. The market
can grow much faster as a result – and for customers, it’s a relief.
It’s a much easier way of introducing new
technologies,” says Yoshino. The company licensed Yoshino’s basic patent for
lithium-ion batteries to other battery manufacturers including Sony, who
introduced the technology into the market in 1991. Although the basic patents have
expired, Yoshino’s continued advances have allowed Asahi Kasei to maintain its
market presence, retaining 17% of the global market share for lithium-ion
battery separators up to 2016. Based in Tokyo, the company has nearly 35 000
employees and an annual turnover of EUR 15.6 billion. Yoshino’s work continues today
with the inventor recently developing new measures to improve safety standards
and increase battery efficiency.

With
the worldwide market for lithium-ion batteries estimated at EUR 26.5 billion in
2017 and projected to reach over EUR 80 billion by the year 2025,
Yoshino’s pioneering work over the last 30 years continues to drive new
developments and influence its future direction.

For
Yoshino himself, his invention is linked inextricably linked to its ever-increasing
applications and he enjoys using the technology he developed in his everyday
life – in his laptop, mobile phone, electric razor, and power tools. “You must
conduct research with the needs of the market in mind,” he said, “and those
needs do not become apparent unless you seek them out.”

About the European
Inventor Award

The European
Inventor Award
is one of Europe’s most prestigious innovation
prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams
of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest
challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an
independent jury consisting of
international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science,
academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards
technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in
Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories at a ceremony that will this
year take place in Vienna on 20 June. In addition, the public selects the
winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists by online voting
on the EPO
website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 16 June 2019.

About the EPO

With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the
largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with
offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the
aim of strengthening cooperation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO’s
centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality
patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million
people. The EPO is also the world’s leading authority in patent information and
patent searching.

Additional resources

View the
patents:
 
EP0149133, EP0205856, EP0603397, EP2063436, EP2063435, EP2634854

Additional
information, photos and videos about the European Inventor Award 2019 can be
found in the EPO Media Centre. Smart TV users can download our app “Innovation TV” and watch videos about all finalists on
their TV screen. The award ceremony on 20 June 2019 will be broadcast live on
Innovation TV, the EPO website and the EPO’s Facebook page.

Media contacts European Patent Office

Jana Mittermaier
Director External Communication

Rainer Osterwalder
Press Spokesperson

EPO
Press Desk

Tel. +49 89 2399 1833
Mobile: +49 16 3839 9527
press@epo.org

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