Boosting Future Mobility with High-Capacity Batteries

Mr. Atsushi Ito

PROFILE

In 2008, Atsushi Ito received his master’s degree in applied chemistry from the Graduate School of Engineering, Kanagawa University. Entering the Nissan Research Center (NRC) at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. that year, he conducted research and development of cathodes for high-capacity lithium-ion batteries for five years. During this time, he received the Committee of Battery Technology Award in 2010 at the 52nd Battery Symposium in Japan. He then completed his doctorate in applied chemistry in 2012 at Kanagawa University. In 2013, he became a visiting researcher (STA) at Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, where he studied the surface phenomena of silicon anodes for use in high-capacity lithium-ion batteries. He returned to Japan in 2015 to oversee research and development of cathodes and cell design and boost the performance of these batteries.

* STA (Short Term Assignment): STAs are a overseas assignment program in another country with a specific task or mission to support projects.

The Potential of Energy

Atsushi Ito became interested in the lithium-ion batteries in mobile phones as a high school student, when he first sensed the potential of energy. He began researching batteries at his university. This work continued after he joined the Nissan Research Center, where he engaged in the development of high-capacity lithium-ion batteries to further the evolution of electric vehicles. “Lithium-ion batteries allow for storage of solar, wind and other kinds of natural energy, so they broaden the possibilities for energy and are suited to a sustainable society. As we have established in a project overseas,* EVs are not only a means of transport but can also contribute to society as part of a system supplying power to homes and businesses.”

* In a smart grid project conducted in Maui, Hawaii, Nissan LEAF vehicles are used as part of a system for storing excess solar, wind and other power.

Broadening Horizons Through Collaboration

In his sixth year after joining the center, Ito was sent on its Short-Term Assignment (STA) program to Argonne National Laboratory in the United States. While there, he conducted lithium-ion battery research from an entirely new angle. In Japan, Ito concentrated so much on his own field that it was difficult to consider other possibilities, but he felt that his days at Argonne broadened his horizons as a researcher. “Since university, I had studied cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries, but at Argonne I took part in research of anode materials. The American style of research was also different from the steady, solitary work I’d completed in Japan. By skillfully advocating the interest of their research, scientists win the attention of others and seek their cooperation. Personally, I found the views of physicists highly stimulating. In chemical research, physical analysis is crucial. It sometimes led to a breakthrough when my study had reached an impasse. I received valuable assistance that helped to speed up my research.”

A New Heart for Tomorrow’s EVs

After returning to Japan, Ito continued his materials research while also starting to study cell design with the aim of producing high-capacity EV batteries. “As well as extending driving distance, high-capacity batteries would allow for more space within vehicles. This would increase freedom for vehicle designers and make more comfortable interiors possible. It would also bring costs down, making EVs more affordable.”

Improvement in Every Area

Nissan has sold more than 195,000 EVs to date and has produced 37.4 million cells, the smallest units within its batteries,* yet there have been no major malfunctions. “The high quality is largely due to product development and manufacturing techniques. As a researcher, though, I think it’s simply amazing,” says Ito. Although there must be great pressure to create batteries that surpass the current “amazing” levels, he displays clear confidence in the next-generation batteries he is working on. “It’s natural to improve on the performance of existing products in every area. It’s also difficult, of course, because there are time constraints regarding targets to meet, but I aim to create a battery that will shape a new era of vehicles.”

* Figures as of October 31, 2015.

Where Dreams Become Reality

As a high school student, Ito had a vision of the future. He now feels that he is living that ideal. “I’m very happy to be able to do a job I find interesting and motivating. I think all researchers must have particular areas they aspire to explore ‘one day.’ At the Nissan Research Center, there are constant opportunities to turn these future dreams into present-day reality.” It is possible to start researching even unusual ideas if they are judged to be worthy of study. This is where one can find the joy of bringing something new into the world.

A Note to Prospective Researchers

To create a new vehicle and provide new value to society requires researchers from many different fields. “I think that EVs are reshaping vehicles,” says Ito. “Perhaps new cars will emerge that are far removed from present concepts. I’d like to bring lots of people together with interesting ideas from many different fields and have them inspire each other and build new vehicles together.”

Based on an interview carried out in November 2015.

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