Connecting science with society

– A chemist’s a passion to connect next-generation solar cells with “element strategy” –
  • Professor Eiichi Nakamura, Department of Chemistry

Target range of applied study

Professor Nakamura points out that the term, “applied study” can be misleading.

“People tend to think that applied study is directed toward bringing the result to the market and products. But academic research cannot go that far. That is a territory for industries. Such confusion occurs, as science, technology and engineering are not differentiated.”

Professor Nakamura explains, science is “to prove what is unknown”, technology is “the skills or techniques”, and engineering is “to manufacture products according to the needs of society”. Science contains technology, technology contains science, and engineering contains science and technology. However, the three elements should be contemplated separately to avoid confusion.

For instance, an electron microscope with which to elucidate molecular structures is “technology” itself, and it takes “specialist skills” to produce 1,000 kinds of fullerenes. On top of that, engineering is indispensable for brushing up the “technology” and “skills” to the levels required for serving the actual needs of the society, which allows, for example, ensuring of safety and an appropriate price setting. Based on these requirements, “applied study’s responsibility is to get to the step just before the engineering stage.”

Pursuing alchemy in modern days

Figure 3

iron catalyst cuts binding

What Professor Nakamura works on aiming for the future application is a study to use iron as catalysis. The purpose is to substitute rare and expensive elements such as palladium with iron, the most abundant heavy metal in the space, thereby altering industrial processes. The study has continued for more than 15 years.

“Insofar as palladium is a rare element which is a finite resource, it cannot be used forever. For instance, an event occurred in the summer of 2011 in which China placed its rare earth metals under export controls. Using iron as catalyst is no easy task given a scientific difficulty rooted in the properties of the element itself. Science’s job is not to do ‘what can be done’, but to address a challenge of doing ‘what need to be done even if it seems infeasible’,” he says. He coined a term, “element strategy initiative” in 2004, and now it is a national strategy to promote replacement for and cutting down on the use of rare elements.

Chemistry originated from alchemy that tried to change base metals into noble metals. To aim to substitute a base metal of iron for a noble metal of palladium is nothing but “alchemy in the modern days”. His comment “only chemists can solve element resource depletion issues” is highly persuasive.

Two ways in which science matters

Figure 4

baroque flute, piccolo, and cembalo

Professor Nakamura enjoys baroque music alongside his research work.

“What are important in music are not notes, but messages a player puts into sounds. The same is true for science. Experimental data are but music notes, and what meaning is given to data and what message is implied by it are important. Science is an expression of intention just like music. To develop next-generation solar cell materials and to make iron into catalyst are the very messages I infuse into my research.

That “science has two significant purposes” is his cherished opinion. One is to elucidate the principles of nature to provide dreams to people, and the other is to solve challenges in the society.

“Science starts from personal passion and clarification of mysteries. But nowadays that is not adequate for a variety of reasons that did not exist sometime ago. Scientists to approach social problems with their high level science skills are needed.”

His words are backed by his experience during his undergraduate years. He worked as an intern in Israel for three months in 1971, which is an interval period between the third (1967) and the fourth (1973) Arab–Israeli conflicts. He witnessed tensions of the war zone here and there. He saw remains of tanks lying where fierce battles took place with minefields left as they were. These early experiences prompt him later on a journey from basics to the horizon of applied studies.

“Malthus made an interesting remark in his book ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798) to say that ‘evil exits in the world not to create despair but activity’. Be it an issue of energy or element resource depletion, an emergence of a new social challenge will provide scientists with a place to play their active roles.”

“Connecting science with society” is the message Professor Nakamura infuses into science.

Professor Eiichi Nakamura,Ph.D
Professor Eiichi Nakamura,Ph.D
1978 : Ph.D in chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Tokyo Institute of Technology
1978-1980 : Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Chemistry, Columbia University, New York
1980-1984 : Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, Tokyo Institute of Technology
1984-1993 : Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, Tokyo Institute of Technology
1989-1991 : Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Applied Molecular Science, Institute for Molecular Science
1993-1995 : Professor, Department of Chemistry, Tokyo Institute of Technology
1995-present : Professor, Department of Chemistry, The University of Tokyo
2014-present : Member of the Science Council of Japan

<The original>
Interviewer&Writer Masatsugu Kahara
Photographer Jyunichi Kaiduka