A bioplastics development luminary
"I seek to create plastic that is both environmentally friendly and functional"
NEC has been at the forefront of development of new plastics that don't use exhaustible resources like petroleum. Here, Masatoshi Iji shares his thoughts on the development of safe, secure bioplastics derived from biomass sources. He discusses his role and responsibilities as project leader, and also describes the remarkable characteristics of the new composite materials that came to fruition after overcoming hurdles during the development process. In addition, he looks ahead at the challenges he will be taking on next.
A shift from petroleum-based to biomass-based plastics
--First of all, can you explain what bioplastics are in simple terms?
Iji: As I'm sure you're aware, plastics are used extensively in the household goods, cars, and electrical appliances that we encounter in our everyday lives. Because they are so easy to shape, melting when heated and then hardening once cooled down, they are used in a range of products. However, most plastics are derived from petroleum, which is an exhaustible resource.
In contrast, bioplastics are derived from biomass sources such as corn and sugarcane. The bioplastics currently manufactured include polylactic acid and biopolyethylene, which are based on biomass starches, as well as composite materials that combine these with various additives.
--What are the advantages of bioplastics, and why are they an attractive option?
Iji: The main advantage of bioplastics is they don't use exhaustible resources like petroleum. Instead, they are manufactured from renewable biomass resources. The second advantage is that they help prevent global warming. Plants absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, and use it to create their structural components. Using them as infinitely renewable biomass resources also helps reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the air.
Other benefits of bioplastics include the fact that they decompose in soil and pose no health risk to living organisms, but this can depend on the type.
Earlier I mentioned that starch from plants like corn was used for bioplastics, but now varieties designed for feed or industrial use that are not meant for human consumption are utilized. In addition to developing starch-based bioplastics, NEC is also progressing with development of bioplastics made from cellulose, which is the principal component of non-edible resources such as timber and plant stalks.
The annual supply of starch is currently at about 1.4 billion tons, while cellulose production peaks as high as 80 billion tons a year. The vast majority of this is discarded as waste, so it will be crucial to take advantage of this resource in the coming years.
Why NEC is developing new materials
--Why is an ICT manufacturer like NEC developing bioplastics?
Iji: Developing the key materials we use in-house has always been part of NEC's company culture. Independently developing eco-materials and using them in our products gives us an advantage over competitors when it comes to environmental protection measures. The global deployment of the eco-materials we develop can also make a significant contribution to society around the world through environmental conservation.
Based on this vision, NEC took the initiative and recruited engineers in areas as diverse as ICT, materials, and chemistry to establish research facilities and testing environments comparable to those of top materials suppliers.
--Can you go over the history of bioplastic development at NEC?
Iji: In the early 1990s, there was a major problem with the plastic used in durable products such as electronic devices around the world. Specifically, the halogen-type flame retardant (organic bromine compound) used to improve the flame retardancy of petroleum-based plastics (to reduce fire risks) was prone to releasing harmful dioxins when burned.
We set about resolving this problem, and in 1998 we successfully developed a flame-retardant plastic that eliminated halogen from the process. Coming up with a technological solution to these past issues attracted attention around the world, and we put this technology into production through a collaboration with a materials supplier. It is currently produced around the world by a number of suppliers of materials.
Meanwhile, in 2000 NEC began the development of bioplastics, to create next-generation plastics not derived from petroleum. We approached development from an altogether new perspective, as the goal of our research was to achieve both a high plant component ratio and excellent functionality. This is something other companies, including materials suppliers, were not attempting due to the difficulty involved.
In 2006, we developed a bioplastic composite resistant to heat deformation. It was created by combining polylactic acid with fibers from a plant called kenaf, which was effective in terms of preventing global warming. In a world first, it was put to practical use in mobiles phones from NTT DOCOMO. We continued to research polylactic acid composites that feature superior flame retardancy, and in 2010 we successfully implemented this technology in front panels for PCs and parts for POS systems. This was accomplished through the combined efforts of the research team, operations personnel, and materials suppliers.
The challenge to develop safe materials begins
--Tell us about your work history with NEC.
Iji: After working on the development and application of plastics for electrical components at a materials supplier, I joined NEC in 1990 to fulfill my dream of researching environmentally friendly materials. For a while after I joined, my research revolved around plastic recycling technology. However, the deeper into this research I got, the more I became convinced that a shift to safer materials is what was necessary.
At the time, organophosphorous compounds were a common replacement for the harmful halogenides used as a flame retardant in plastic, but in that day organophosphorous compounds weren't safe enough, either. In light of this, we elected to try to develop a safer petroleum-based plastic that didn't use organophosphorous compounds.
Back then our team was only small, and we didn't have a comprehensive research facility in place, but over the course of our studies and tests we discovered a new molecular structure with excellent flame retardant properties and safety of a specific silicone (an polysiloxane). We then worked with a materials supplier to become the first in the world to produce flame-retardant polycarbonate resin using this silicone-based flame retardant. This was given the name "Eco-polycaTM," and it went on to enjoy widespread acclaim both within and outside the company. It was used extensively in the casing for NEC brand PCs and projectors, and then has been used in components for other companies’ many products such as LCD televisions in the world.
We also successfully developed an epoxy resin with self-extinguishing properties, eliminating the need for such toxic flame retardants. This has been implemented in main IC packages used in components for various electronic devices produced in the world. These success stories established a business model, differentiating our eco products and producing income through patent fees from materials suppliers based on sales at other companies, and this cemented environmentally friendly plastics as our research topic. As a result we gained more members and better organization, which built up momentum toward development of even more environmentally friendly bioplastics.
After that, our two main research tasks were development of bioplastics using starch-based flame-retardant polylactic acid composites, and non-edible cellulose plant resources.
--What is your role as leader of bioplastics development?
Iji: When we were exploring environmental measures for petroleum-based plastics, my job as a researcher was focused on finding ways to solve issues, and conducting a series of iterative tests. As the leader of bioplastics development, I now serve in a managerial role. My most important duties are formulating research strategies and propelling our research programs forward.
As a research team at a manufacturer, we take on more responsibility than a typical research institution, because we must generate profits and value for the company by producing results and applying these to practical applications in a timely manner.
Consequently, because NEC is not a supplier of materials itself, our research strategy for materials involves identifying global requirements and technological trends, and adopting research topics that have not already been exploited by major materials suppliers, while also taking advantage of our competencies. The in-house development of technological breakthroughs makes our products stand out, and we also have a built-in market through the use of our technology in NEC products. By collaborating with the right materials suppliers, and incorporating their technology, we are able to bring products to market ahead of our competitors.
I manage the overall progress of projects, and meet with other members to brainstorm when research hits a dead end, or when we are struggling to overcome issues. For this, I think the key is to be able to motivate team members and elicit ideas from them.
Other essential parts of my job are handling public relations, as well as diplomatic negotiations between our operations department and external manufacturers, both in Japan and overseas. Cultivating a strong team is also important, and I make a point of ensuring our team members have the ability and drive to think things through and take on challenges.