The Researcher as Drama Producer

Dr. Hideaki Horie


(Based on an interview carried out in August 2012.)

Earned his master’s degree in physics from the University of Tokyo in 1985. Joined the Nissan Research Center (then the Central Engineering Laboratories) that year and spent the next five years developing catalyst materials to cleanse vehicle exhaust. In 1990, began work on high-performance power systems for electric and hybrid vehicles. Earned his doctorate in engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1999; thereafter taught classes at his alma mater while continuing his RD& work as an expert leader in Nissan’s EV Energy Development Department and Advanced Materials Laboratory. Became a senior innovation researcher (SIR) in spring 2012. He now works on EV battery systems while also taking the lectern as a project professor in the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science.

SIR (Senior Innovation Researcher):SIR scheme was introduced in FY2012 in Nissan. Purpose of SIR scheme is to recruit and nominate outstanding external/internal researchers who are able to achieve innovative research results revolutionizing the Mobility so-called "Game Changer" in Nissan. SIR’s compensation is high return/high risk depending on their research results within 3 years as a contract period.

Powering the Cars of the Future

Twenty years ago, talk of a car—no toy, but an actual automobile carrying passengers—running solely on batteries seemed unimaginable. How could something the size of a vehicle carry a battery that held enough energy to power it? Wouldn't batteries always be limited to support roles in cars powered by gasoline? One researcher, though, sought to answer these questions with a lifetime of research to extend the capabilities of batteries: Hideaki Horie, one of the first senior innovation researchers (SIRs) at the Nissan Research Center.
Horie now carries out research as a project professor at the University of Tokyo. He concurrently pursues research in the field of energy devices for EVs, or electric vehicles, at Nissan. One of the key figures in battery research, Horie is looked to as a leader in crafting systems for today's EVs and hybrid vehicles and sparking innovation in tomorrow's automotive power sources.

The Drive to Write All-New Scripts

When asked about the necessary skills for a researcher to have, Horie comes up with a long list that seems more appropriate to a theatrical drama producer: broad perspective, an imagination capable of creating stories, experience in and a sense for “casting” to achieve the best matches among a limitless range of materials and various kinds of limitations placed on them, and the ability to draw out top performances to please the customer and lead to profitability.
“Nobody's interested in watching a run-of-the-mill show,” says Horie. “I strive to create scripts overflowing with fresh reality. Whether you're talking about the fundamentals of the story and the characters in the cast, the events that take place in the narrative or the musical score, it's the people who create that program in the first place who set the main rules for it. One of the most important tasks for a drama producer is to make sure the story has as meaningful an impact as it can. This is the very essence of our goals as researchers. The more substantial that impact is, the more it will move the real world. In the end, this is what's sure to become a great, new movement producing change in society.”
Cutting-edge research today is generally a scene where numerous researchers pursue new developments in genres originally pioneered by a handful of trailblazers. Horie declares that his mission is to blaze trails where nobody has gone before, laying the groundwork for future efforts. Beneath his calm scientist's demeanor lie surprising levels of ambition and confidence in the path he has chosen.

The Need for a Battery Breakthrough

Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery in 1859; this was followed 40 years later by Waldemar Jungner's 1899 invention of the nickel-cadmium cell. These creations were the forerunners of the rechargeable batteries in use in the world today. Later, Thomas Edison and other giants in industrial history carried out vigorous research in the battery field, but this resulted in little major evolution in the technology during the twentieth century. Thereafter, batteries were generally viewed as something to use in devices for providing light or playing audio content—devices, in short, that did not require so much power. This is the reason that just 20 years ago, the idea that a full-featured car could run on batteries alone seemed like a concept from the distant future.
It was during the last decade of the twentieth century that this thinking began to undergo serious change. During this era we saw the achievement of lithium-ion and Ni-MH, or nickel metal hydride, batteries that were ready for real-world use. Horie notes: “In our play starring various energy forms, these high-performance rechargeable cells were walking onto the set and landing major roles. One leading factor in this trend was the electric vehicle. At last, we had batteries with the power to move big objects like cars. Today the auto industry is taking the lead and making practical use of this capability ahead of all other industries.”
The question of what energy will power automobiles is linked to natural resource, environmental and a host of other issues. Demand for new electricity storage systems for EVs had reached a point where it could no longer be ignored, and Horie's research was on the cusp of major developments.

Toward a Transformation of the Automobile

Horie has played a part in creating the battery age we see today, but now his gaze is fixed on a future for batteries that goes beyond anything now foreseen. And as he explains, this hints at new automotive forms that we have never seen in the past.
“The cars on the street today are basically descendants of covered horse-drawn wagons. The fundamental structure of the car, with its box shape and its tires fixed fore and aft, left and right, underwent little change in the shift from horse to engine power. From now on, though, things are going to be different. Once we gain the ability to split the motor and the power source, we become able to change the car from its most fundamental structure on up. EVs could make it possible for us to transform the automobile in very flexible ways into something we've never imagined before.”
This change in the source of automotive power, says Horie, has the potential to bring about deep, sweeping change and progress in the industry. This could indeed prove to be one of the seminal technological revolutions of the twenty-first century.

Bringing Imagination Back to the Battery

“The industrial giants of a hundred years ago,” states Horie, “had bold dreams for the future of the battery and poured their passion into their work. Unfortunately, though, the batteries we've seen so far have been limited in their capabilities. I feel that the very concept of the battery has been restricted considerably. As a result, people today may have fixed views on just what batteries can do. This is no good. The research I do every day aims to bring imagination back to work in the battery field so this technology can help the automobile take the next dramatic step in its evolution.” According to Horie, we are entering an age when batteries must be considered not as standalone power sources, but as integral parts of systems and networks. “We can't know precisely what it will achieve, but I expect that the battery will be a very promising new actor in the coming age, playing key roles in the new dramas that are created and being a central star over the long term.” The world is increasingly looking to the next grand stage, where Horie intends to produce powerful, flexible auto batteries informed by all-new concepts. He describes the task before him: “Thomas Edison collected a huge number of material samples from all over the world for his experiments. This led to dramatic improvements to the incandescent light bulb and was a significant contribution to the creation of the electric lighting industry, which made the world of the twentieth century a brightly illuminated one. “Right now the Nissan Research Center is working hard to study materials selected from a similarly vast number of choices. We're in the casting phase of our drama production, in other words. Next we need to figure out how to coax the unique abilities out of those actors and make them part of new products the likes of which haven't been seen before. If Edison were still alive, I like to think that he'd be involved in this field, working toward the potential of new creations at the dawn of the high-power battery age. You could say we're taking on the challenge of turning a world he could never have dreamed of into reality.”

Based on an interview carried out in August 2012.