Photo/IllutrationA young Akira Yoshino researches an ancient tomb as a member of Kyoto University's archaeology club. (Provided by Asahi Kasei Corp.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Growing up in the city of Suita, Osaka Prefecture, after World War II, future Nobel Prize winner Akira Yoshino used to roam his neighborhood's many bamboo groves to catch dragonflies.

The area of his early childhood memories now houses the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, and much of the municipality he lived in has been given over to housing.

The transformation that occurred there is much like the one Yoshino is now facing as he celebrates being named a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The award, announced Oct. 9, is for the pioneering work of three scientists in developing lithium-ion batteries.

Even as a child, Yoshino, now an honorary fellow with Asahi Kasei Corp., developed an interest in chemistry.

When he was a fourth-grader, a new female teacher took charge of his class. The teacher, a chemistry major, recommended a book by British scientist Michael Faraday titled “Chemical History of a Candle” for the children to read.

“The book had descriptions on such things as ‘Why do candles burn?’ and ‘Why are flames yellow?’ As a child, I thought chemistry was fascinating,” Yoshino, 71, said in a news conference on Oct. 9.

“When children develop an interest (in something), they become better at it,” he said.

This prompted Yoshino to conduct “experiments” with materials close to hand. For example, he used to pour hydrochloric acid, used to cleanse toilets, onto lumps of iron he picked up nearby and enjoyed watching the foams that the chemical reaction produced.

His interest in chemistry grew, and he became sufficiently good at it. He entered Kyoto University, where he majored in petrochemistry, one of the most popular subjects in those days.

But for the first two years, he studied archaeology.

The atmosphere that prevailed was for students to learn disciplines other than the one they intended to major in.

Yoshino found himself thinking, “If petrochemistry is state of the art, I will take up the challenge of archaeology, which is the oldest form of history.”

He joined an archaeology club and visited excavation sites in Kyoto and Nara prefectures on a daily basis. He was involved in excavating the ruins of Katagihara temple in Kyoto, which now is a historical site park.

Even though archaeology is a totally different field, research in archaeology bears many similarities with chemistry,” Yoshino said.

He noted that in archaeology, researchers rely on physical evidence, such as earthenware, when no written evidence is available.

“They are extremely loyal to the facts. It's just like science based on experiments. How can researchers present new data ahead of the world? That is the common factor (with chemistry),” Yoshino said.

“My experience of archaeology contributed greatly to my subsequent research (in chemistry),” he added.

Akira Yoshino’s dauntless and flexible spirit paid off big time

Building on work of others was key to lithium-ion batteries