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Winner of the Medal with Yellow Ribbon
Craftsmanship in creating bioplastic that replicates Japanese lacquerware

November 2, 2023

During the 2023 Fall Conferment of Decorations, NEC employee Toshie Miyamoto received the Medal with Yellow Ribbon. The Medal with Yellow Ribbon is awarded to those who serve as public role models through their diligence, skill, and accomplishments in fields such as agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. We spoke in depth about the award with the employee who was honored for her bioplastic manufacturing skills and to the researcher serving as her supervisor.

Secure System Platform Research Laboratories
Toshie Miyamoto

Secure System Platform Research Laboratories
Shukichi Tanaka

Taking sole charge of the four processes from synthesis to evaluation

Secure System Platform Research Laboratories
Toshie Miyamoto

― Congratulations on receiving the Medal with Yellow Ribbon.

Miyamoto: Thank you very much. I would like to thank everyone on the team that worked to make this award possible.

― You were presented this award in recognition of your skills in bioplastic manufacturing. Specifically, what kinds of activities are involved in the manufacturing and development of bioplastics?

Miyamoto: The development of bioplastics involves four major processes. These processes are: "chemical synthesis," in which the resin is made from non-edible plant resources; "compounding," in which various additives are mixed into the base resin; "injection molding," in which the resin is placed into molds to form shapes; and "property evaluation," in which the strength and other properties of the finished product are measured by subjecting it to bending and impact. These four processes are repeated many times to develop a material that meets the requirements. For NeCycle®, which was commercialized recently, the entire process took about two years to complete.

Tanaka: Although Miyamoto speaks of this as a rather ordinary accomplishment, it is truly a great achievement. For a typical materials manufacturer, each of these four processes would involve specialists who collaborate with each other in each step. However, Miyamoto was able to do this all by herself.

Miyamoto: Fortunately, I had about 10 years of prior experience in the development of bioplastics, so I had a general understanding of how to use the equipment in all processes. This was the result of me gradually expanding the scope of my work so that I could contribute to the team [laughs]. It was advantageous for me in the end, as I was able to learn about all of the processes and gain a more detailed understanding of the connections between each process.

Tanaka: NeCycle® is a bioplastic with a lacquer-like decorativeness, which is made from non-edible biomass such as wood (Note 1). We also enlisted the cooperation of one of Japan's leading lacquerware artists, Dr. Yutaro Shimode (third-generation president of the Shimode makie-studio and professor emeritus of the Faculty of Cultural Studies at Kyoto Sangyo University), as we pursued the exceptionally difficult task of achieving the warm and unique black color of real Japanese lacquerware.

Miyamoto: That's right. Since we could check the sheen and color each time the product was molded, we were able to make many fine adjustments to the molding machine, such as when the temperature or pressure was not high enough.

Tanaka: The raw materials and quantities are not the only factors that determine the quality of organic chemical materials. Although we researchers calculate and present such recipes, the actual quality of the product varies greatly depending on how it is made. For that reason, the skills of the experimenters are extremely important. I am really grateful to Miyamoto for always maintaining the highest level of quality in the experiments and being able to ensure reproducibility.
As a result, NeCycle® is now being commercialized and is starting to be used widely in society as a new material that is durable, aesthetically attractive, and environmentally friendly, in products such as luxury cosmetic cases (Note 2) and marine-biodegradable lures for squid fishing (Note 3).

Environmentally-friendly cosmetic containers (manufactured by Pluseeds)
Part that uses NeCycle

Carefully collaborating with researchers to understand the best points to focus on

Secure System Platform Research Laboratories
Shukichi Tanaka

― What kinds of things do you keep in mind when conducting your work?

Miyamoto: More than just creating prototypes and providing feedback to the researchers, my job is to communicate the status of production and the details of any changes. In addition to keeping detailed written notes on data such as the precise quantities and settings, I also gave verbal updates on the findings made in each experiment.

Tanaka: The prototype results can ultimately be seen in the final product. However, it is not possible for us researchers to know what happens during the prototype process unless we are present the entire time. This is one of the disadvantages of leaving the prototyping to others. However, in Miyamoto's case, she reported the observed results exactly as I would have done myself. Since she focused perfectly on the points that we researchers wanted to know, the prototyping process could proceed efficiently.

Miyamoto: I was able to grasp the points that I should observe based on Tanaka's reactions each time I gave a report. Once I understood the points that he cared about, I tried to pay attention to them the next time. One day, I even reported that there was a delicious smell of caramel [laughs]. Even though it seemed like a trivial point, I thought Tanaka might recognize that the smell was due to a particular reaction, and that it could be an important hint to move the prototype forward, so I went ahead and reported it.

― I see. Detailed communication is important.

Tanaka: Yes, that is true. In that sense, Miyamoto is cheerful and very easy to talk to. She is a very effective communicator.

Miyamoto: I think the team made that possible.

Tanaka: The other members also found Miyamoto's notes easy to understand. Thanks to her communication, we were able to continuously conduct stable experiments with ensured reproducibility, and smoothly share the results with others involved.

Detailed notes on the results of daily experiments

Learning continuously ever since joining the company

― Have you always enjoyed science experiments?

Miyamoto: No, not at all [laughs]. I was not so good at science, especially physics. Now that my work involves knowledge of physics and electronic device technology, I am learning every day.

― So, what led you into this line of work?

Miyamoto: At first, I went to school with the intention of getting a job in the system engineering field. When I was about to graduate, my school asked if I would be interested in applying at NEC, since the company had laboratories in Tsukuba. I went ahead and applied, so that is how I ended up at NEC. Also, my home prefecture is Ibaraki.
After joining the company, I started conducting activities associated with science experiments, like counting nematodes under a microscope and crossbreeding them. Every day involved trial and error, and I was constantly remembering things I had studied in textbooks, such as Mendel's laws. My supervisor at the time told me, "You may have some questions and doubts, even about matters that may seem commonplace to researchers. Such questions can be a useful weapon, so I want you to ask me about anything." That was a great source of support. I ended up doing nematode research for about 14 years before moving on to bioplastic research and development.

― Given that you started out with such a limited understanding, what motivated you to continue to where you are now?

Miyamoto: Perhaps it was my curiosity. On the day I joined the company, I wondered what kind of place the laboratory would be. Ever since then, I have been amazed by the kinds of cutting-edge work that we do each day, even now. It is really fun to absorb something new every day. My kids also see this side of me, so they seem to think NEC is a place for doing fun activities [laughs].

Tanaka: That is amazing. Nowadays, we refer to this as "reskilling." However, Miyamoto has been absorbing new things one after another from the start, and has even moved into the realm of specialists. She is also having fun while doing it.

Miyamoto: Yes, but I think the main thing is that I really enjoy the team and the laboratory. I find it interesting that so many researchers are unique and not bound by conventions. I joined the laboratory just at the time when Senior Research Fellow Iijima discovered carbon nanotubes (Note 4). The atmosphere was especially lively, as everyone was excited and saying things like, "We're going to be featured in 'Nature' magazine!" I still remember how excited I was that I worked in the same place as the greatest person in the world, and that the greatest person in the world was playing tennis. I met Iijima the other day for the first time in a long while. Even now, at the age of 80, he is still curious about everything. He asked a lot of questions and seemed to be enjoying the conversation. I feel that I can keep enjoying my work because I am surrounded by people like this in the workplace.

― What kind of research and development will you continue to do in the future?

Miyamoto: The business transfer of bioplastics to mass production has been completed, so I have been engaged in the development of uncooled infrared image sensors for about two years. Our goal is to commercialize lighter and less expensive high-sensitivity infrared image sensors (Note 5) by using innovative carbon nanotube materials discovered by NEC. As I mentioned earlier, knowledge of physics is required in this area, so I am still continuing to study while working on development. I would like to continue working to commercialize infrared image sensors in the same way that we did with NeCycle®, and contribute to NEC's business while having fun at the same time.

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    "NeCycle" is a registered trademark of NEC Corporation.
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