Japan quest for alternative natural resources
To liberate themselves from dependence on the materials that may run out or at least become expensive Japanese companies are looking for alternatives. 31 metals are being used in Japan’s industries today they are thought of as vitamins of manufacturing as the amount is used in products may be small but essential, even a bit of such metals enhances the performance of principal raw materials adding strength or heat resistance. They are found in PCs, light bulb and many other products. For instance a mobile phone contains 10 rare metals almost none of these resources are found in Japan itself, that makes the prospect of any interruption of overseas suppliers an unhappy contingency to plan for. Japan quest for alternative have let scientists to number of alternative roads. One of these paths has led to development of new materials that can be used instead of INDIUM that is used in LCD TV panel. INDIUM has been essential to the transparent conductive ion that accepts LCD electrodes those are the items that activates the liquid crystals that displays the pictures. Japan is the leading producer of LCD panels but this will requires Japan to import 80% of INDIUM traded in the world. Much of the substance come from China but manufactures there want to use it for LCD panel production for them. This has increased the price for INDIUM where price has risen to ten fold since 5 years ago. Modern alchemist at university in Japan is in final stages of developing alternative to INDIUM. Professor Yamamoto of KOCHI University of technology is developing substance that can be used in LCD instead of INDIUM offering same performance. The material is ZINC OXIDE. It is more transparent than INDIUM at one hundredth of price. At the beginning when they started to work with this substance however it did not transmitted as much electricity or light as it was expected due to none alignment of molecular layers but this problem was overcome by alignment of molecular layer by applying high temperature plasma to the substance. TV consumers want to have a thin and large TV panels which imposes a challenge in manufacturing them with Zinc Oxide. With the current method a one square meter TV panel made of Zinc Oxide can be manufactured. This fall the research team released a prototype the first in the world. An LCD display has two electrodes surfaces the one closer to eyes no longer needs INDIUM which results in reduction of INDIUM being used in TV panels by 3/4. Million of small transistors are on the other sides where remains the final challenge of making Zinc Oxide works in an intricate network of transistors.
The other product that uses both largest quantity and volume of rare metals is an automobile. Just one car alone includes 350 Kg of what is known as special steels which is a compound of steel and rare metals that are found in parts of automobile in order to withstand force and heat such as parts in engines and transmission. Resource procurement is a big issue for auto industry but there is small company in Japan that may provide alternative solution. High energy cost along with world economic slow down is putting Japan auto industry into defensive. Toyota suffered a decline in car sales for the first time in 21 years. For the first time in 34 years Toyota increased prices on some of its models mostly Hybrid cars without adding any features. This was done by Nissan as well. One of the contributing reasons for this is the rising cost of rare metals that are being used in cars. This has contributed to surge in finding alternative to special steels all more urgent. A Japanese company by the name of “ISMAN J corp.”?did came up with a process to do just that, the first in the world. The material that has been developed is called “MERAMIX” which means it replaces metals and it exceeds ceramics. The weigh of Meramix is 40% of that special steels but it is twice as strong. It has high heat resistance and it is expected to exceed special steels in performance. Meramix is composed of silicon, aluminum, nitrogen and
oxygen, and produced by an entirely new “control-type combustion synthesis
furnace.” It is much lighter than alloy steel, and is also of high strength and excellent as an industrial material. One of the major challenges in producing Meramix was to develop a method to control the heat under this chemical synthesis which may cause explosion but the company developed a device that keeps the pressure at a safe level below 10 atmospheric pressure to be exact and controlled heat of below 2000 degrees Celsius. The Meramix that has been made by this method is in powder form 500 nm in diameter. There is effort in commercialization of this metal where it was put in test by using it in bearing of wind power generator. Meramix is in a position to take on the challenges of being used in critical auto parts instead of special steels. An ordinary car may include as many as 20,000 parts; Meramix has been made so far for half of this amount. The company is aiming to produce 1 million tones per year in 10 year from now. The development of new materials comes with a high cost. It also takes great amount of time and effort to prove their suitability, Japan needs to do this in order to insure the prosperity of manufacturing industry for many years to come. Confidentiality of information however is at paramount in this area of work for sensitive information not to leak before the manufacture can benefit from its sales. But Japanese companies are willing to take the risk, where the biggest risk is in doing absolutely nothing.