Highlight from Integrated Report
Hydrogen fuel cells are the ultimate source of clean energy. They emit no CO2 emissions during use, making them a promising technology for residential, automotive and other applications.
The Nisshinbo Group is aiming to help create a hydrogen-based society by establishing technologies and reducing costs for fuel cells through the development of carbon bipolar plates, carbon alloy catalysts and hydrogen sensors.
- How will the business development division help Nisshinbo achieve its goal of ¥1 trillion in sales by 2025?
The business development division is tasked with leading Group R&D by knitting together research and development efforts across the whole Nisshinbo Group. Our long-term strategic goal for Group R&D is to provide value for the super smart society. To realize that goal, we are conducting development activities aimed at providing solutions based on four strategic themes — hydrogen, mobility, medical & healthcare and public infrastructure. Across the Group, most spending on research and development is channeled into existing businesses, so achieving our 2025 sales target will depend largely on organic growth in those businesses.
With Group R&D, we will target projects that are not part of existing businesses. At the moment, we see the potential for new business worth around ¥50–60 billion from those projects by 2025, but our aim is to increase that amount further.
To create new businesses, we are focusing on the nexus between technology seeds and market needs, and we also want to leverage the Group’s strengths by incorporating our existing technologies and customer base.
- How are you encouraging cooperation and generating synergies between Group businesses?
- The Nisshinbo Group has a wide range of different business segments, so bringing together all their research and development teams is like fostering cooperation between different industries. With Group R&D, we are supporting activities that build partnerships, as we think it is vital for everybody in the Group to understand what other divisions do and to secure the understanding of key individuals. We are unlikely to achieve any meaningful results if teams only take a superficial interest in working together. In joint research with other companies, contractual conditions present a significant barrier to progress. That’s why I believe the Nisshinbo Group’s greatest strength is its vast range of technologies and customers, which create the potential for open innovation within the Group.
- What progress is Nisshinbo making in hydrogen-related products?
Last year, Ballard Power Systems Inc. selected our carbon alloy catalysts for a fuel cell stack used in portable fuel cell applications. It marks the first commercial use of a non-platinum catalyst in the electrode of a polymer electrolyte fuel cell. The next step is to work with Ballard on the development of new catalyst fuel stacks for fuel cells used in forklift trucks.
Our carbon bipolar plates are already widely used in Ene-Farm residential fuel cell systems, but we also see the potential for adoption in fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Responsibility for developing carbon bipolar plates for vehicle applications has been transferred from Nisshinbo Chemical Inc. to our division and we are accelerating development by harnessing the resources of the whole Group as a joint project.
We are also continuing to develop hydrogen gas sensors. The project involves bringing together the ultrasound technologies of Ueda Japan Radio Co., Ltd. and the signal processing technologies of Japan Radio Co., Ltd., as well as the customer base of Nisshinbo Holdings Inc. Based on market research, we have decided to focus first on developing helium gas leak detectors. We hope to start test sales of the detectors before the end of 2018.
In the field of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, electricity companies have not been able to depend entirely on nature for power generation because output does not fit the daily patterns of end-users. To overcome that issue, there is growing momentum behind the idea of using fuel cells to generate electricity to match energy demand periods. Electricity generated by renewable sources is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, which is then stored and used later by fuel cells to generate electricity.
The world stands on the verge of a major turning point in energy, and fuel cells are set to play an increasingly important role in the future hydrogen society. I believe Nisshinbo is well-placed to take advantage of that trend.
- Tell us about your longer term development ideas and strategies.
Prompted by Nisshinbo president Masaya Kawata, we started running workshops for young Nisshinbo employees in 2016. One of the aims of the workshops is to encourage talented employees in their late 20s and early 30s to think about what kind of organization the Nisshinbo Group should be in 2030 and beyond. The goal is to cultivate personnel across our organization who can lead the Nisshinbo Group well into the future. In 2017, workshop participants were invited to present their ideas in English at the Management Policy Meeting, which is attended by senior Nisshinbo personnel from around the world. Their ideas were well-received by attendees.
Bipolar Plates for Fuel Cells
Carbon bipolar plates manufactured by the Nisshinbo Group are used in the Ene-Farm residential fuel cell system and in fixed fuel cells for commercial use. In order to improve productivity, we are accelerating the automation of production lines for bipolar plates used in residential applications, where Nisshinbo already has a high market share, and for other promising fixed fuel cell applications.
Meanwhile, in the automotive sector, efforts are under way to develop technology that will steadily reduce the cost of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). In China and North America in particular, development of fuel cell-powered buses and trucks is gaining momentum. Our carbon bipolar plates are roughly the same thickness as metal versions, but are easier to mold and more resistant to corrosion. They are also ideal for automotive applications due to their low weight. We have transferred all responsibility for development work on automotive bipolar plates to Nisshinbo Holdings, Inc., creating a framework that allows us to draw on the resources of the whole Group.
We are targeting adoption in FCVs from 2025.
Carbon Alloy Catalysts
In cathode catalysts for polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFC), we have taken a completely new approach by switching from platinum to carbon as the main material. We can ensure stable supplies of carbon alloy catalysts because they do not use platinum, a precious metal. In September 2017, Ballard Power Systems, Inc., a leading fuel cell manufacturer in Canada, selected our carbon alloy catalysts for portable fuel cell applications, marking the first commercial use of a non-platinum catalyst in a fuel cell electrode. The use of our carbon alloy catalyst has reduced the volume of platinum in Ballard’s fuel cell stack by roughly 80%. Ballard added the fuel cell stack to its product range from December 2017 and it is attracting interest for outdoor and backup power supply applications.
We are now pushing for adoption in fuel cell-powered forklifts, which are gaining popularity, particularly in North America. We are also working to improve the performance of our carbon alloy products before the FCV market starts to take off.
In this way, the Nisshinbo Group is already working to make the hydrogen society a reality.
Ultrasonic Gas Sensors
Ultrasonic gas sensors measure differences in the specific gravity of hydrogen, helium and other atmospheric gases.
The sensors have been developed by combining technologies from across the Nisshinbo Group – ultrasound technologies developed by Ueda Japan Radio Co., Ltd. for the medical field, and signal processing technologies created by Japan Radio Co., Ltd. for radar and wireless communication products.
Unlike existing products, our sensors do not require heaters or rare metal catalysts, helping to extend their usable lives.
Response time is also fast and they can detect gas over a wide area. We plan to start test sales of a portable helium gas leak detector in 2018. Compared with large, heavy and expensive existing products, our new sensors are small, light and battery powered, meaning they can be used easily whenever and wherever they are needed.
After securing explosion-proof certification, we plan to roll out portable hydrogen gas leak detectors, while also working on developing smaller versions for use in FCVs. We aim to make our hydrogen detectors the de-facto standard by the 2030s, when FCVs are set to take off in the market.