Discovery turns a problem into a solution

From electronics research emerged a new, recycled material with endless applications.
“We discovered that rice husks had a unique structure that could be applied to other purposes”

More than 100 million tonnes of rice husks are discarded every year. They can’t be used for animal feed; when burnt they pollute the air; and if dumped they produce methane gas, which contributes to global warming. No solution had been found until 2006 when a scientist at Sony discovered by chance that this waste could be turned into a new material.

That scientist was Seiichiro Tabata, who was working on a lithium-ion battery for the consumer electronics giant. “Our team was testing many natural substances to use in battery production and we discovered that rice husks had a unique structure that could be applied to other purposes,” he says.

As with many innovations in the realm of repurposing materials, the impact is twofold. “We are not only dealing with the ricehusk problem but also helping to solve some global challenges,” says Tabata. It was obvious that partnerships with other industries was essential.

So far the material (now called TriporousTM) has been used as an ingredient in shampoo and spun into yarn to make T-shirts – taking advantage of its odour-adsorbing property. The textiles were presented in February at ISPO, the world’s largest sports and outdoor trade show in Munich. “We received a great response there,” says Takanobu Tsuboi from the team. “We feel that people are increasingly interested in co-operating to fight social and environmental issues.”

Another area of application is water and air purification, which Sony is researching in collaboration with the University of Tokyo. It could be used to clean the ballast water loaded into ships’ cargo holds, which when discharged in different oceans can negatively affect the marine ecosystem. In Kyoto, Triporous is also being tested to verify its air purification performance to preserve artefacts in the Byodoin Temple world heritage site.

The potential seems infinite, supported by an open innovation environment. “It was more about competition before,” says Tsuboi.

Clean air supply

According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people are lacking readily available water at home, while 4.5 billion people have no access to clean sanitation. And air pollution kills an estimated seven million people every year. That’s why the air and water purification function of this invention has huge potential.