With its great public transport system, Japan is one of the world’s truly personally mobile cultures. There are portable gadgets of all kinds, not least of which include cell phones and music players. Have you ever wondered just how many batteries are needed annually to feed this mobility? We decided to check, and apparently Japanese consumers own more than 100m cell phones and 200m+ personal entertainment and information devices. As a result, they consume about 4.6bn batteries worth JPY700bn (US$5.98bn) yearly, of which about 78% are primary (disposable) batteries.

Thus any breakthrough in making batteries better or cheaper is big news to consumers and electronics makers alike.

In our latest (Summer) issue of the Japan Inc. magazine, we are featuring a Tokyo-based venture company called Ion Technology which has created a true paper thin batteries (not a capacitor). This amazing product can be printed on to paper, card, and plastic media, applied as a paste-and-foil combination, much the same as ink and plastic coatings are printed today.

The availability of a small, cheap printed battery, when combined with integrated CPUs, sensors, and e-paper makes possible a whole range of new ubiquitous devices. Think smart bandaids with healing displays, audible due-by date warnings on food packages, talking alien registration forms, e-paper free newspapers, supermarket RFID tags with onboard transmitters, credit cards with onboard CPUs, and lots else besides.

Ion Technology’s breakthrough has been in the development of an activated, solid electrolyte made of natural minerals which can be printed between a pair of graphite and aluminum plate electrodes. Although the content of the electrolyte is a patent-pending trade secret, lab testing and now trial runs of sample product are proving that that the formulation not only works, it produces about 4-10 times the energy density for a given volume than other paper-thin batteries. As added benefits, Ion Technology says that their disposable batteries are environmentally friendly and only cost about 50% of conventional cells to produce.

If you’re technical, then these specs might be interesting:

  • Ultra-thin version, measuring just 0.2mm in height, provides 3.5 volts at 400uA/hr per 4cm2
  • 0.6mm version, suitable for credit cards, offers triple the output — i.e., no loss of capacity when stacked
  • 1mm version, suitable for prepaid cards, can supply 14 volts output, enough to power an onboard display and data transmitter
  • As a comparison, current paper-thin batteries of 0.6mm profile offer just 1.5 volt output and 30uA/hr of power

As you can imagine, with energy specifications like these, coupled with the low manufacturing costs, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese consumer electronics manufacturers are lining up to deal with Ion Technology. After producing lab prototypes late last year (2005), the company quickly moved to funding and received its first round in February 2006.

But money alone is not enough according to Ion Tech’s paranoid CEO. His primary concern is that as he gains a higher profile, he will be targeted by some of the heavyweights in the industry. He expects patent and, PR challenges from companies claiming paper-thin products but who have not yet cracked the energy density riddle. For this reason, Ion Technology is actively courting foreign manufacturers and partners to produce licenced products and conduct further product developement.

The CEO of Ion Technology is 48-year old Nobuyuki Tabata.
He is a graduate of the prestigious Hitotsubashi University and is a qualified accountant with an inventive streak. An interesting guy, Tabata has seen the highs and lows of running one’s own business. The low point was when in his early 30’s he had a water purification company shut down by an impatient vendor and their bank. This buried him in debt and took 10 years to work off.

Hardly humbled, however, Tabata is still very much the entrepreneur. Ever since he was a kid, he has been obsessed with the study of rocks, derivative minerals, and their properties. Although he won’t say which one, in 2003 while working in his lab, he recalls that he “just happened” upon a mineral which produces a weak form of electricity naturally. Sensing that this scientific anomaly could be commercialized, he set about isolating the active material and processing it into a purpose-made ceramic. Two years later, he has successfully achieved this goal and is using the resulting active material in Ion Technologies’

As mentioned, Tabata himself is an interesting person. He told us that much of his knowledge is gained from text books that he pores over every night. To stay ahead of the curve, he tries to read 500 books a year! Of course, doing this and holding down a job at the same time would normally be impossible. But several years ago Tabata discovered an obscure title in Japanese which purports to help readers survive on just 3 hours sleep a night. The idea of gaining an extra 5 hours study time a day excited him and he embarked on the program. It worked and he reckons that he now gets by on just 3-5 hours sleep a night and yet can still function effectively during the daytime in the office.