The field of “nanotechnology and materials” is built on nanoscience based on fundamental sciences such as materials science, optics, life science, information science, and mathematical science. Nanoscience has been developed as science dealing with phenomena occurring at the nanoscale. Common basic technologies (manufacturing, measurements, and simulations) are structured on nanoscience, and applications of these technologies to materials lead to development of devices and components. Also, they become cross-cutting technologies in the fields such as environment, energy, health and medical care, social infrastructures, information and communications, electronics, and so on. Eventually, they give rise to innovation and the field of “nanotechnology and materials” plays an important role as an “innovation-engine”.
The field of “nanotechnology and materials” possesses a potential as a technological basis capable of leading the future of diverse industrial fields and carries the weight of high expectations for society. Such expectations include solutions for global problems related to the environment and energy such as climate change and depletion of the natural resources and drinking water, prevention of excessive rise of medical expenses, the improvement of quality of life of patients through early diagnoses and treatment, non-invasive diagnosis, and regenerative medical techniques in the fields of health and medical care. Growing expectations exist also in the field of information and communication technologies for advances in device technologies which realize a widespread dissemination of the Internet of Things (IoT) as well as for advances in exploration of novel materials fully utilizing data science taking into account the rapid advances in collection and processing techniques of “big data”. Through meeting these expectations, electronics, components and materials industries, which have been driving Japanese economy, possibly evolve into a new look.
While pursuing further advances in semiconductor microfabrication technologies as predicted by Moore’s law, researchers had developed techniques to observe nanoscale structures and to understand and control phenomena that occur at the nanoscale, leading to great advances in nanotechnology in the period from around 1990 to the early 2000s. Developments in semiconductor microfabrication technologies propelled progress in the digital technologies and improvements in the performance of electronic devices and, coupled with advances in network technologies, led to major innovation in telecommunications that became known as the IT revolution. In this context, nanoelectronics can be regarded as the driving force of nanotechnology during this period. However, while obstacles to further miniaturization in semiconductor microfabrication began to come to surface after the early 2000s, many researchers began attempting to produce nanostructures through self-organization using autonomous chemical reactions. During this period, there were significant developments in biotechnology, including the human genome sequencing and the emergence of iPS cells, and the roles of nanotechnology and biotechnology became an inseparable part of each other’s development. Today, humankind is facing grave issues related to the environment and energy, such as climate change, and this has further increased expectations on the role that nanotechnology and materials will have in finding solutions to these issues. However, these issues cannot be resolved solely through nanotechnology. We, therefore, have to tackle these issues with the nanotechnology combined with biotechnology, information technology, and materials science and engineering.
Concerning the materials field, Japan has played a major role in promoting R&D, particularly leading the world in the development of new materials, to support key industries of components and materials and to create new industries. Many key technologies in the field of materials were greatly responsible for some of Japan’s most important inventions and achievements, including photocatalysts, lithium-ion batteries, permanent magnets, blue LEDs, and media and magnetic heads for hard disk drives.
Under these backgrounds, components and materials industries have developed numerous products centered on functional materials that claim a large share in global markets, despite the market size of each sector is small. Japan’s companies also possess numerous products that have captured a large share of the global market in individual materials, such as semiconductor materials, display materials, battery materials, carbon fibers, and separation membranes for water treatment. On the other hand, Japan’s once high market share in hardware such as PCs, cell phones, and TVs has declined considerably due to fierce global competition. Japan has also suffered a loss of shares in its previous stronghold of raw materials including some of its LCD materials such as photoresist and color filters, and materials for lithium-ion batteries. The global market for batteries, power semiconductor devices, and carbon fiber composite materials, in which Japan is presently very competitive, is expected to see great expansion in the future. Needless to say, it is vital for Japan to maintain or strengthen its industrial competitiveness in these markets.
Looking at the policies and strategies of foreign countries, all the countries addressed in this report have a basic national strategy for nanotechnology or materials, positioning these fields as prior technologies. Nanotechnology is now transitioning to the next phase more than ten years after the U.S. launched its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001, which created a kind of boom worldwide. A 2014 report by the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended that looking ahead of outcomes, it was time for nanotechnology to transition to NNI 2.0 through systemization. In Japan, the 4th Science and Technology Basic Plan positioned nanotechnology and materials fields as common science and technology bases, while the Comprehensive Strategy on Science, Technology and Innovation (2014) redefined these fields as cross-cutting technologies. The annual administrative budget allocated for nanotechnology and materials was approximately 2 billion dollars for both the U.S. and Europe (totaling all national budgets in the EC), and was between 500 million and 1 billion in Russia, Japan, Germany, and China. While Japan’s government has invested a total of about 90 billion yen in these fields, the industry has spent approximately 900 billion yen on research and development. The priority of Japan’s investments has been in areas showing great industrial and social promise, including energy storage devices, power electronics, catalysts (catalysts for chemical synthesis, artificial photosynthesis/photocatalysts, fuel cells, etc.), structural materials, sensor devices (for health care, environment, and infrastructure, etc.), and the critical materials of the Element Strategy program. The U.S. has placed emphasis on advanced manufacturing (through the Materials Genome Initiative, National Nanotechnology Initiative, etc.), semiconductors (nanoelectronics), and clean energy, while Europe has focused on graphene and carbon fiber composites.
Looking at trends in human resources, membership in major academic societies involved in nanotechnology and materials fields is gradually decreasing in Japan (the decline is thought to be largest among company researchers), while membership has been increasing in major academic societies overseas. About 24,000 active members participated in annual conferences and the like in Japan related to these fields, while about 35,000 researchers in nanotechnology and materials fields published papers on these topics over the past year. The latter number ranks third behind China (about 140,000) and the U.S. (about 80,000). When examining the increase in published papers over the past ten years, Japan’s advancement lags well behind that of the U.S. and countries in Europe and Asia, which could be a cause for concern.
A comparison of international trends in R&D shows that Japan still keeps a high level in all areas of basic researches. One can see a direct correlation between the research in each field and the activity of the corresponding industrial field, such as Japan’s high industrial technology capability in applications for the environment and energy and its low capability in applications for health and medical care and electronics. The U.S. demonstrates strength in all fields, from basic to applied research and in industrial technology capabilities. The U.S. has a powerful national support system in place, particularly for biological fields, with a distinctive ability to promptly link achievements in basic research to industrial applications. When compared to Europe, Japan leads individual countries in numerous technological fields, but is overtaken by the collective strength of the EU as a whole. Europe’s major R&D centers, such as IMEC in Belgium and Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany, are actively engaged in R&D, from basic research to practical development on sensor devices and MEMS. While China and South Korea are blessed with extremely talented researchers, at present their overall capabilities in R&D are still inferior to Japan, Europe, and the U.S. However, these nations have shown superiority in some areas and it appears that the gap in several fields is steadily shrinking. South Korea, in particular, has reached a level of technological capability surpassing Japan, Europe, and the US in such fields as spintronics (STT-MRAM) and organic electronics (displays), largely owing to deep commitment of Samsung Group.
The countries/regions that have published the most papers overall on nanotechnology and materials since 2011 are, in order, China, Europe, U.S., and Japan. Most conspicuous among this trend is the rapid increase in papers coming from China, as they have published nearly twice as many as U.S. The number of research papers published in Japan slightly increased up until 2009, but since then has remained in the same level or on a declining trend. Japan as a whole has been active in applying for patents, particularly on fuel cells and power electronics. However, as should be expected, China has also shown a remarkable increase in this area.
Over the last two or three years, R&D on organic-inorganic hybrid perovskite solar cells, organs-on-chips, trillion sensors, quantum computers, atomically thin two-dimensional functional films (e.g., graphene), topological insulators, and MOFs (metal-organic frameworks) among other topics have been attracting worldwide attention. Since 2000 Japan has steadily produced technological achievements that have drawn attention around the globe, including the discovery of iron-based superconductors, the development of MOFs, and the development of perovskite solar cells. All of these achievements were made in the midst of heated competition.
This type of global, intensely-competitive R&D has further increased the need to speed up development. Efforts to establish an open innovation model at centralized research hubs are being carried out around the world in order to share in the costs of technological development, reduce risk, gather diverse groups of specialists at centralized research hubs, and enjoy the advantages of shared infrastructure, public investment and support for the development of basic and core technologies, and the mutual use of intellectual property. Extra-large research complexes for industry, academia, and government are being established overseas one after another, including Albany NanoTech (USA), IMEC (Belgium), MINATEC (France), Fusionopolis (Singapore), and Nanopolis Suzhou (China). These research complexes are developing their activities on a global scale. In Japan, the Tsukuba Innovation Arena - Nanotech (TIA-nano) is currently expanding its funding and the numbers of participating researchers and research projects.
Countries such as the U.S. and South Korea are working to establish a research network for the shared use of advanced equipment that can be beneficial for the integration of different research fields, collaboration among industry and academia, and development of human resources in order to maximize cost-effectiveness. Japan is also earnestly developing the Nanotechnology Platform for the shared use of state-of-the-art research equipment in the fields of nanofabrication, nanostructural analysis, and molecule and material synthesis. Japan, however, faces a shortage of specialized personnel capable of supporting users of facilities, equipment, and software and engaging in the accumulation and advancement of skills, as well as the necessity of putting in place career paths for such personnel. Any of Japan’s industry, academia, or government sectors have not yet found any policies that are adequate for securing and fostering the personnel in the long term and a stable manner.
In addition to these issues, there are several other problems in Japan, including approaches to bridging basic bionanotechnology research to clinical applications, strategies for handling intellectual property in university research and in collaborative research between industry and academia, strategies for promoting standardization in nanotechnology, and risk assessment regarding environmental, health and safety (EHS) issues as well as ethical, legal, societal implications (ELSI), and social acceptance. Regulations and government approvals and licenses relevant to these issues should also be addressed.
Based on the recent trends in the field of nanotechnology and materials described above, Japan is considered to be one of today’s world leaders in these fields. However, it remains to be seen whether Japan can maintain its current position with the rise of China, South Korea, and other countries when comparing aspects of each country’s R&D policies and strategies and considering the declining shares in Japan’s electronics products, as well as Japan’s stagnant growth in the development of human resources and the numbers of published research papers and submitted patent applications. Clearly Japan should establish closer collaboration among industry, academia, and government and conduct autonomous actions to strengthen its R&D capabilities.
Considering social expectations in the global scale as well as recent trends in R&D, the following are some Grand Challenges that Japan can aim for in R&D.
• Environmental pollutant removal, more energy-efficient separation in chemical processes, separation and storage of hydrogen for the coming “hydrogen society,” and functional materials with separation/adsorption capabilities for medical care and numerous other fields along with their system applications
• Interactive biointerfaces that enable favorable interactions between cells or biological materials and diagnostic and treatment devices at the molecular level by designing more sophisticated interfaces between artificial devices and living organisms
• In electronics, establishment of control technologies for nanoscale heat (phonons), and evolvement of these technologies through integrating different quanta such as electrons, spins, photons, and phonons
• Wearable and implantable electronic devices for healthcare and the augmentation of mind and human’s ability, realized by integration of nanoelectronics functions such as sensing, networking, and energy harvesting, on ultra-small, low-cost semiconductor chips
• Formulation of bio-inspired manufacturing technologies by studying the structures and functions of living organisms and incorporating this knowledge in advanced manufacturing technologies represented by computer-aided design and 3D modeling
• Data-driven approaches for high-throughput search and design of materials with higher performance, higher reliability, and lower cost consisting of complex and multi-element system
It is vital for Japan to maintain and strengthen its R&D capabilities in the field of nanotechnology and materials, whether as a source of industrial competitiveness or for the measures of addressing global issues. To this end, Japan should create a scheme of nanotechnology research and development for a new age that will enable to maintain the world’s highest level of base technologies and will allow both academia and industry always access to them, and will derive technological innovation leading to practical applications, system integration, and industrialization. In addition to supercomputers for high-speed simulations and a nanotechnology platform for enabling the measurement, characterization, nanofabrication, and synthesis of materials, Japan should build a material information infrastructure to manage vast quantities of material data and to provide them to users on demands. Then Japan should construct a nationwide triangular Nanotechnology and Materials Innovation Platform using these three components to form regional research centers that closely collaborate in their activities. This is the most important message of this report. The Nanotechnology and Materials Innovation Platform should be constructed together with establishment of satellite research centers in various regions of Japan which allow their network to spread its roots throughout the country. Such a platform would allow researchers in any region of Japan access to advanced technologies in other parts of the country, which could help revitalize regional industry. It would also facilitate networking and collaboration among researchers and enable Japan’s researchers to collaborate with and compete with the rest of the world.