|Inventions + Breakthroughs|
|Inventions + Breakthroughs|
With nearly one hundred years of research and experiments stretching across an extremely diverse range of scientific fields, RIKEN's list of inventions and discoveries is too long to include in its entirety. We offer here instead a brief sample, taken from different eras in RIKEN's history.
Most sports drinks function by restoring energy through the replenishment of electrolytes, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients. VAAM, a sports drink invented by RIKEN Special Chief Scientist Dr. Takashi Abe, works in a different way. Rather than supplying nutrients, Dr. Abe's invention works by helping the body burn the energy reserves (i.e. body fat) it already has in storage. VAAM does this by reproducing synthetically the same Vespa amino acid mixture contained in hornet saliva.
Dr. Takashi Abe's invention was inspired by his studies of hornet venom at RIKEN, which he started in 1978. This led to his discovery of the power of the nutrient liquid produced by hornet larvae that adult hornets feed on. "The nutrient liquid is essential for the survival of adult hornets," Dr. Abe explains. "When they lose their hives, they starve to death because they cannot get the nutrient liquid."
As it turns out, Dr. Abe's studies revealed that the nutrient liquid, the hornet larval saliva, is rich in proline, glycine, and alanine. A mixture consisting of 17 of the 20 essential amino acids making up the raw material of proteins, the nutrient enables hornets to fly 80km a day, non-stop. "Amino acids have been linked to specific physiological activities, "Dr. Abe explains. "However, I was the first to show the concept that amino acid mixtures deliver new functions."
Interestingly, the amino acid mixture has a similar effect on humans as it does on hornets: subjects who drank VAAM 30 minutes before exercise were found to consistently out-perform all other competitors. This became an internationally recognized fact when Naoko Takahashi won the Sydney Olympic marathon and credited her success to VAAM. Running on VAAM-power, Takahashi went on to become the first woman to break the 2 hour 20 minute marathon record, and won six marathons in a row – most recently, at Berlin in 2002. VAAM has also been used by Japanese mountain climber Tamae Watanabe, who climbed mount Everest thanks in part to energy provided by the drink.
The search for "superheavy elements", unstable synthetic elements with extremely short half-lives, is a difficult and painstaking process. Such elements do not occur in nature and must be produced through experiments involving nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, via processes of nuclear fusion or neutron absorption. Since the first such element, neptunium (Np) with atomic number 93, was discovered through synthesis in 1940, the US, Russia, and Germany have competed to synthesize more of them. Elements 93 to 103 were discovered by the Americans, elements 104 to 106 by the Russians, and elements 107 to 112 by the Germans.
Japan joined the race in 2004, with its synthesis of element 113. The discovery was made by the Superheavy Element Laboratory, headed by Associate Chief Scientist Dr. Kosuke Morita. Using the RIken LineAC (RILAC) linear accelerator and a novel nuclei separator, called the gas-filled recoil separator (GARIS), the group generated element 113 on the night of July 23, after years of research and preparation. The discovery was made possible thanks to the high performance capacity of RILAC and the careful selection of optimal incident energy for the beam nuclei.
The name of "Japonium" has been tentatively proposed for the new element, whose temporary name is Ununtrium (Uut). A Russian team, who published results on the synthesis of element 115 in February 2004, has reported the production of element 113 as a byproduct, and thus claims to have produced element 113 first. However, only the Japanese team has been able to trace back the chain of decay and prove, on an experimental basis, the atomic and mass numbers of the synthesized element.
Particle accelerators are best-known for the central role they play in uncovering the fundamental dynamics and structure of matter, space and time, but they have other uses as well. Over the past several years, researchers at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science have developed an application for such accelerators that goes well beyond the experimental physics for which they were originally designed. In an approach unique to Japan, seeds from a variety of different plants are exposed to beams of heavy atomic ions accelerated to half the speed of light, producing mutations and breeding new varieties of flowers, crops and trees.
There are many advantages to this new approach. In contrast to other breeding techniques such as hybridization, exploration and gene recombination, the time span for breeding with heavy-ion beams can be shortened to only two or three years. Heavy-ion beams also carry much greater energy than the X-rays and gamma rays used in mutation induction (mutagenesis), meaning that a gene can be significantly altered even with only a single particle. The high-performance of RIKEN accelerators also enable the use of ions of carbon, nitrogen, neon, argon, iron, and other elements, thus offering a greater variation in the types of mutations.
A high-profile example of the new varieties of plants generated from this method is the Nishina Zao, a strain of cherry blossom with pale yellow flowers. Using the RIKEN Ring Cyclotron at the RI Beam Factory (RIBF) in the Nishina Center, a group led by Deputy Laboratory Head Dr. Tomoko Abe, in collaboration with the Japan Flower Culture (JFC) Ishii Farm, induced mutations in cuttings from Gyoikou cherry trees in Yamagata Prefecture, which have a mixture of yellow and green blossoms. This led to the creation of a new strain, the first plant to be registered by RIKEN under the Seeds and Seedlings Law.
The name of the new flower symbolizes its origins. Nishina is the surname of the father of accelerator-based science in Japan, Yoshio Nishina. Zao is the name of a mountain in Yamagata Prefecture where the co-researcher in the project lives. Once created, the Nishina Zao plants were taken back to mount Zao to be grown, where they blossomed in the spring.
The mathematical technique of renormalization has its origins in the use of constants and parameters in the formulation of physical laws, which can change as a result of interaction with a particular medium or substrate. Normalization refers to the process of choosing base units for these laws such that certain physical constants, such as the speed of light, become equal to unity, making it easier to see underlying relations between dynamic variables. The term "renormalization" originated in the idea of normalizing physical laws relative to a new constant.
The field of "renormalization theory" emerged from a crisis in physics in the early 20th century, when physicists realized that this change of constants can produce infinite results in the case of quantum field theory, at the time considered to be the ultimate framework for the laws of nature at a microscopic scale. The problem was solved by a new technique (renormalization) by which the summation of an infinite number of energy levels at short distances was avoided by imposing a minimum cutoff on fields.
Shinichiro Tomonaga, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who joined RIKEN's Nishina Laboratory in 1932, played a seminal role in the development of renormalization theory. The son of a professor of philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University, Tomonaga worked on research in the area of quantum electrodynamics under the guidance of Dr. Yoshio Nishina. In 1943, he published the “super-many-time theory,” which reconciled quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity. Tomonaga further developed these ideas in his work on renormalization theory, for which he, along with Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965.
The new theory was key to the development of quantum electrodynamics and has become a central technique in quantum field theory. Tomonaga once reflected, “My career in physics came about because of Einstein’s visit to Japan in 1922, when I realized that the world of physics holds many wonders. I was enchanted by the possibility of investigating this fascinating world.”
The typical Japanese home is today installed with an average of three air conditioners, keeping air inside cool and dry even through the hot, sweltering heat waves that hit large cities in the summer. A hundred years ago, however, no such air conditioners existed in Japan. The country's first commercial air conditioner was installed in 1923, in the Hogakuza, a movie theatre that was located in central Tokyo. RIKEN played a central role in the creation of this first air conditioner with its invention of Adosoru.
Adosoru is a desiccant, a substance that absorbs moisture and promotes drying, made from a special type of clay that is highly porous and absorbent. Masatoshi Okochi, the innovative president of RIKEN in its early days, was sure this was a material that could be put to use in business, and in 1922 he established a company named Toyo Gas Shikenjo to find commercial applications for Adosoru. The first major application of Adosoru was in the air-conditioner that RIKEN researchers installed in the Hogakuza, a system carefully designed to accommodate the 1000-person-capacity of the theater. The popularity of this first air-conditioner in Japan led to further installations of Adosoru-based air-conditioning systems at other locations.
The development of Adosoru was carried out by a research group led by Kikunae Ikeda, inventor of monosodium glutamate (MSG), and Hajime Isobe. Toyo Gas Shikenjo, a company created to find commercial applications for Adosoru, was RIKEN's very first spin-off business and the seed that would grow into the famous RIKEN Konzern with more than 63 companies. RIKEN's contributions to society began with Adosoru.
The benefits to the human body of vitamins—organic compounds organisms need in small amounts for their nutritional value—are well-known today, as demonstrated by the many dietery supplements on the market. In the early 20th century, however, the term "vitamin" had not yet even been coined, and there remained a great deal of mystery surrounding the existence of such compounds.
Japanese researcher Umetaro Suzuki, the father of vitamin research in Japan, was the earliest to identify a vitamin with his discovery in 1910 of aberic acid, today known as vitamin B1. The importance of nutrients in preventing beriberi, a nervous system ailment caused by a deficiency in the vitamin, had been recognized earlier, but Suzuki was the first to isolate B1 as the key nutrient for preventing the disease. Suzuki published his finding in a Japanese journal and patented the invention. For his work, Suzuki was awarded the Culture Order and, later, the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor.
Suzuki's contribution to vitamin research, however, did not end with B1. Working at RIKEN as Director of the Chemistry Division with his pupil Dr. Katsumi Takahashi, Dr. Suzuki later succeeded in isolating and extracting vitamin A from cod liver oil. He also invented a type of synthetic sake, RIKEN-Shu, which differed from traditional sake in that it was made from materials other than rice and needed no preservatives. The patenting of these and other inventions sparked a vitamin boom in Japan, generated enough income to support all of RIKEN, and led to the establishment of RIKEN Vitamin, Ltd. Co., a company which still exists today. With all his contributions, Umetaro Suzuki laid the foundations for vitamin research in Japan.
Important inventions often arise in response to the sudden need for novel solutions to new problems. In the years after the outbreak of World War I, Japan faced one such problem in coping with painful restrictions on imports of materials from foreign countries such as Germany. The ensuing resource shortages forced Japan to develop high quality steel and other metal materials on its own. Physicist Kotaro Honda, who opened his RIKEN-Honda Laboratory at Tohoku Imperial University in 1922, was motivated in his metallurgic study of alloys by this need for new directions in domestic steel production.
Honda's research resulted in his invention of KS Steel in 1917, a permanent magnetic steel with three times the magnetic resistance of tungsten steel. Kichizaemon Sumitomo, the head of the family-run conglomerate whose initials appear in its name, provided financial support for the research leading to the invention. Japan's position at the forefront of world research on magnets may largely be attributed to the early work of Honda's research team on KS Steel. His subsequent invention in 1933 of NKS steel, made up of iron, aluminum, nickel, cobalt, copper and titanium whose magnetic resistance is several times higher than that of the initial KS steel, brought him further prestige within Japan.
At the RIKEN-Honda Laboratory at Tohoku Imperial University, Honda also mentored many world-famous scholars and scientists, such as Shoji Nishikawa, Hakaru Masumoto and Seiji Kaya.