3DOM is analyzing mobility from all angles and is committed to finding comprehensive solutions for a truly CO2-free transportation sector. While ambitious, 3DOM has the right combination of competitive elemental technologies, innovative applications, and smart business models to make it a reality. We speak with president Masataka Matsumura to learn more about 3DOM’s battery technologies and its ambitious plans to reimagine mobility in land, sea and air.
How has the essence of Japanese monozukuri helped Japan stay competitive in the high technological field?
I think that Japan’s culture of hospitality and mindfulness towards others has led us to invent things others may not think of – for example, the famous Japanese toilet with a heated seat. All jokes aside, in a business setting requests from customers tend to be approached earnestly, and the ensuing collaborative process between companies and their customers results in the creation of many innovative new technologies.
Another essential aspect of Japanese monozukuri is respect for craftsmen, from sushi chefs to artisan knife makers. Many experts have emerged across all industries because of the value placed on their work. I believe that as long as we continue to value these experts, Japan will be able to stay competitive in providing technologies and materials difficult to replicate at the same high level.
Now we are seeing the rise of IoT, or internet of things, which connects information with manufactured products. While countries like the U.S. have shifted to information-based societies that specialize in platform development, the rise of IoT should also favor Japanese companies and their manufacturing strength. The movement should also speed up the robotization of manufacturing, which is a space I believe Japanese companies will be able to dominate.
However, I would like to see Japanese companies continue to leverage the same craftsmanship and expertise while shifting to prioritize the environment as their most important customer. Japan may not excel in earning profits, but our knack for problem solving with dedication and integrity should equip us to tackle impending climate crises and rise as leaders in that market. I believe that our generation’s mission is to leave a world fit for our children and grandchildren to inherit, a mission that drives our work here at 3DOM. Our approach is to reimagine mobility and focus on developing truly environmentally friendly forms of transportation.
For example, our group is currently developing a micro electric vehicle that can be easily assembled from only 50 parts, with a battery that offers twice the running time of current standards. One of our goals is to deploy these vehicles, along with environmentally friendly infrastructure optimized for them, in emerging nations to prevent the extent of damage caused by CO2 emissions elsewhere. Moreover, we are devising solutions that are equally friendly to local users, including a usage-based subscription system that should significantly alleviate upfront costs associated with traditional gasoline vehicle ownership.
We take stewardship of the environment extremely seriously and are analyzing the environmental effects of our business from all angles. Other companies might claim to have the environment in mind, but be pumping out more CO2 in battery manufacturing than that the battery saves in its use powering an EV. Many companies are looking to solar power generation, but CO2-absorbing forests and foliage are being cleared for the installation of solar panels. At 3DOM we are looking to propose more radical and more effective solutions that achieve our objectives of protecting ecosystems and reducing CO2.
In 2014, you were founded as a start-up company emerging from Tokyo Metropolitan University. Would you please tell us what are some of the key milestones for your company?
The company was founded with Professor Kanamura of Tokyo Metropolitan University when he suggested starting a business with an exciting new technology he was developing. Professor Kanamura is the greatest mind in Japan when it comes to battery technology and heads the government’s battery committee. The technology he initially brought to the company, which remains our greatest differentiator, is our proprietary separator.
Our separator features a three-dimensional structure of evenly spaced and sized pores, similar to the structure of a beehive. These pores regulate the flow of ions to suppress dendrite formation, the primary cause of short circuits inside of a cell. Moreover, in the rare event that dendrite did form, the three-dimensional structure would prevent it from passing completely through the separator, further enhancing reliability. The high level of porosity also allows for superior electrical flow and efficiency, and the separator is very flexible and can withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius.
The addition of the 3DOM separator finally makes battery technologies commercially viable that have long been pursued for their promise of higher energy densities. For example, lithium metal is an ideal anode material because of the high energy density it offers compared to conventional materials like graphite. Competitors have been racing to produce lithium metal anode rechargeable batteries, but without our separator technology the batteries could be prone to quickly form dendrites and become unusable.
Beyond just the separator, we are currently developing three types of rechargeable batteries: lithium ion, lithium metal anode, and solid-state electrolyte. Our next-generation lithium ion battery is unique in simultaneously maintaining both high reliability and high energy density, positioning it to become the global standard. Our lithium metal anode rechargeable battery possesses twice the energy density of products on the market today, while our solid-state electrolyte battery offers that same superior energy density with enhanced reliability.
There is a trend that the battery industry is moving towards a solid based battery rather than a liquid-based core. How hard is it to make the transition from a liquid-based to a solid based battery?
Solid electrolyte uses either oxide or sulfide materials. Oxides’ resistance to conducting electricity generally makes them unattractive for battery use, leading most companies to pursue solid-state batteries using sulfides. However, even a very small amount of moisture that enters a sulfide battery reacts to form hydrogen sulfide and an explosion. To prevent this, you need to fabricate the batteries in a factory that can keep the temperature down to -80 or -90 degrees Celsius, which obviously increases the cost of production significantly. We have therefore engineered our own oxide-based technology that solves the problem of conductivity for a successful solid-state electrolyte battery prototype.
Many companies had thought that solid electrolyte would eliminate the necessity of the separator. However, it is clear now that dendrites are still forming in these batteries. Solutions are to add a separator or to increase the space between the electrodes. Since significantly increasing the size doesn’t make practical sense, many companies are reaching out to us to provide them with the separators required for these batteries.
Which market has been demanding the 3DOM separators the most?
There are too many to count. If you were to name any company, they have probably requested technology from us.
R&D is the essence of your company and the monozukuri process as well. In fact, your company hired more engineers bringing the team to 70 people. What is the role R&D plays within your company?
We have more than 100 extremely talented engineers spearheading our research efforts. They possess a wealth of experience, coming to us from a range of other top companies. An aspect they have noticed and appreciate about R&D at 3DOM is the decision-making process – a decision that may have taken a year in other companies takes minutes in ours. If you’re wondering why it’s so quick, it is because the engineers are the most knowledgeable of all of us, and I trust them to make the technical decisions.
Many Japanese companies look to partner up with other corporations to stay competitive in the market. Have you or are you looking for cocreation partners?
Yes, as long as they are suitable partners. We will only consider partnering with companies that share our vision and align with our corporate policy. They would have to demonstrate that they truly want to improve the environment.
Do you have an evaluation process for these companies that truly care about the environment?
We assess these companies based on their long-term vision. This has led us already to form partnerships around the world. For example, we are planning to set up a large battery factory in the U.S. with a partner company there. We also have partners for our mobility segment, including in Africa and Asia. Because we are introducing very new concepts, it tends to be easier to propel our business abroad.
The reason is that Japan as a country is overly conservative. The economic difficulty that Japan has been suffering is a result of the risk aversion of Japanese companies and banks. This stifles the flow of capital required to build startups that drive innovation.
Last year, you established a subsidiary in Singapore. Speaking about establishing your businesses abroad, would you please elaborate on your current international strategy?
We are seeing an increase in demand for our batteries all over the world, so we are now in the process of considering locations in the U.S., Southeast Asia, and potentially Europe as production hubs. However, we are interested not simply in manufacturing and sales, but system integration and operations as well. We are therefore targeting countries around the world, particularly emerging nations, for the deployment of new electric transportation and related infrastructure. Of course, the business model will be optimized for the unique circumstances of each region. Additionally, in the U.S. we have established a subsidiary for the electrification of marine vessels, an industry expected to grow to 10 trillion yen in the next ten years, with the mission of reducing the enormous emissions produced by the marine transport sector.
You mentioned that you wanted to tackle Europe as well. Are you looking to employ the same strategy as the one used in the U.S?
Strict emissions regulations in Europe are requiring that all auto manufacturers increase production and sales of EVs in order to avoid heavy fines. As a result, we are seeing significant demand from European companies for our products. We are currently discussing our business strategy in Europe, but I cannot divulge too many details.
Which country do you think holds the future for 3DOM?
While our eye is on foreign countries now, I think things will ultimately lead back to Japan. As I mentioned earlier, the future is in robotics. Not only does Japan possess the technological know-how for development and manufacturing, but our rapidly aging and declining population demands the technology to make up for lack of human capital. For example, right now we are looking to deploy our EVs in emerging nations, but Japan will be the ultimate market for autonomous driving functions down the road.
Of course, the geographical and social proximity will also aid our ability to easily respond to needs here. My vision for the future of Japan is that robots will do most of the work and the majority of people will live on basic incomes. The fact that in Japan millions of people already live on pensions shows the potential for the government to implement a basic income in the future.
Your company is trying to commercialize lithium metal batteries by 2022. Would you please elaborate on your current efforts and what are your goals in the midterm?
We have now brought our next-generation lithium ion batteries to the mass production stage and expect to begin supplying in 2021. We are currently producing sample lithium metal anode rechargeable batteries and plan to start mass production of those in 2022. Solid-state electrolyte batteries will be the next step, but we do already have successful prototypes. Introduction of the micro EVs that I mentioned earlier should start in 2022 as well.
Imagine we come back in two years for another interview. What are the accomplishments you would like to have achieved that you would like to tell us about then?
To summarize, we want to have released our lithium metal anode rechargeable battery to the market and have started operating our 50-part micro EVs in several emerging and developed countries.