TOKYO — Japan’s dearth of natural resources may well end up being a boon for the world.
The country accounts for some 4% of global resourse consumption. It produces only around 6% of the energy it uses. This is motivating Japanese scientists to pursue technologies that, over the long term, could help to wean the country off imported fuel.
But the thirst for resources is not just a Japanese problem. With some predicting that the world has only 40 to 50 years’ worth of oil left — if the current pace of consumption continues — Japanese alternatives might prove just as useful for everyone else.
It all begins with basic materials. In the city of Yokohama, not far from Tokyo, a project that could dramatically change the energy scene is underway. The key ingredient: E. coli bacteria.
In the lab of bioventure Genaris, liquid in a beaker turns from milky white to brown after a few hours of stirring with a special device. This is a good sign. It means the bacteria are active and beginning to produce a new substance, according to a researcher at the company.
E. coli bacteria, which measure about 1/2,000 of a millimeter wide and 1/500 of a millimeter long, abound in nature — including in the human intestine. Most people think of them as a health threat, since they can cause food poisoning. But there are several types, most of which are harmless. They are also ideal for gene manipulation, since they are single-cell microorganisms; this can turn them into “superbacteria” with a variety of capabilities.
Genaris is using them to produce industrial materials from recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, bottles.
Recycled plastic bottles are already used to make fiber and other products. Standard processes leave waste liquid and other residuals that are considered useless. Yet the leftovers contain the main components of PET. Using gene manipulation, Genaris researchers are trying to give the bacteria the ability to dissolve those components so that they can be used to produce materials for computer chips and new PET bottles.
Genaris was founded by Tatsunari Nishi, who serves as president and CEO. He holds a doctorate in agriculture and used to work for Kyowa Hakko Kogyo, a major producer of fermented chemicals now called Kyowa Hakko Kirin. Intrigued by the possibilities of microorganisms, Nishi quit the company in 2001 and started his bioventure in a small room at home.
Through a series of studies, Nishi zeroed in on E. coli. He also realized that extracting useful materials from recycled PET bottles could greatly reduce consumption of oil, which is used in production of fiber and many other things. By one estimate, a bacteria-based recycling system could reduce the use of oil for fiber to one-tenth the current volume.
Nishi said that with plants and bacteria, it should be possible to create “materials equivalent to those made from oil” in the near future.
Meanwhile, a university-born biotech startup in the northeastern city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, is creating ultrastrong thread.
The venture is called Spiber. It takes protein produced by microorganisms infused with spider genes and forms it into lightweight thread that is about 340 times stronger than steel, on a per-weight basis, and 300 times tougher than aluminum alloy. Compared with carbon fiber reinforced plastic — now in high demand for industrial use — the thread is 20 times stronger. Spiber’s mass production technology is drawing attention from companies around the the globe.
This, too, could help to solve the energy puzzle. Since the thread is made from natural protein, it does not require oil — unlike chemical fibers and resins. The production process itself is also energy-efficient.
Light, strong thread could be used in everything from clothing to railway cars and planes. Spiber plans to go commercial by 2020. The company hopes to build a “protein industry that will replace metals and carbon fiber reinforced plastic in 2050,” said Kazuhide Sekiyama, a representative executive officer.
Yet another company rethinking resources is JEPlan. The Tokyo-based venture wants to foster an “ultimate recycling society” by extracting ethanol — with quality equivalent to oil — from discarded clothes and plastic products.
JEPlan’s vision is to use that ethanol to make fresh plastics and other products, with the ethanol to be extracted again when those products reach the end of their life cycles.
“Japan would not need to import oil in 2050″ if it were to establish this kind of recycling loop, said Michihiko Iwamoto, JEPlan’s CEO.
JEPlan has tied up with some 40 companies, including retailers Aeon and Bic Camera as well as Starbucks Coffee Japan. It collects clothes and other items at some 1,000 locations across the country and processes them into ethanol at a plant in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. By 2020, JEPlan aims to increase the number of collection sites to 100,000 and convert 90% of recycled items into ethanol, up from 30% at present.
The Club of Rome, a private global think tank, warned of the risks of resource depletion and swelling populations in a 1972 report titled “The Limits to Growth.” Advances in recycling and materials production could raise those limits significantly.
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