Japanese Trading Firms Playing Catalyst Role in Nanotechnology Business Incubation
Miwako WAGA (Director, Global Emerging Technology Institute, Tokyo)
In an event devoted to Nanotechnology research and business, Japanese companies announced plans to start and expand fullerene and carbon nanotube production in the next few years. Details of the plans were outlined at the International Nanotechnology Exhibition & Conference (nano tech 2002), which was held on March 6-8 near Tokyo and attracted 700 participants, with over 8,000 people visiting the exhibition.
Frontier Carbon Corp. (FCC), a joint venture of Mitsubishi Corp., the giant trade company, and Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., will produce 400 kg of fullerenes in 2002 and 40 tons in 2003 at a pilot plant under construction in Mitsubishi Chemical's Kurosaki facility in Kyushu. Fullerenes are new forms of pure carbon with exceptional chemical, electrical, and physical characteristics. A dramatic increase in the world supply of fullerenes, and a corresponding drop in their price, will encourage potential applications in thermal barrier coating, lithium ion batteries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, gas storage and deposition of diamond films, the company executive says.
The nano tech 2002 exhibition has revealed much is in progress in the field of carbon nanotubes too. The Carbon Nanotec Research Institute Inc. (CNRI) will start shipping 20 nm-diameter multi-wall carbon nanotube (CNT20) samples in May. CNRI will construct a pilot plant in Akishima, Tokyo by September and initially produce 120 tons per year. Plans call for expanding annual capacity to 300 tons subsequently. CNRI was founded by Mitsui & Co., Ltd., another big trading company, in July 2001 with 1 billion yen ($8 million) in capital. CNRI's mission is to conduct research for commercial production of carbon-based nanomaterials and development of new applications for these materials.
Mitsui is expanding its presence in the cutting-edge Nanotechnology business. The trading company also established the Bio Nanotec Research Institute Inc. (BNRI) in July 2001 with 500 million yen ($4 million) in capital. BNRI is focusing its activities on commercializing the production of nano-porous membranes, which are molecular sieve membranes. Mitsui will establish another two R&D companies for nano-electro-mechanical systems (NEMS) and supramolecules. Mitsui will commit further resources to make Nanotechnology an important source of earnings in the years ahead.
The Japanese trading firms are playing a catalyst role in incubating Nanotechnology business. In addition to production, Mitsubishi will finance the development of applied materials through its Nanotech Partners fund, and Mitsui will work with partners to develop applications for nanomaterials. It is expected that the business networks the trading companies have built with suppliers and users of innovative technologies around the world will give them an advantage in identifying promising application areas quickly.