(All information below is accurate as of 2013, when this page was created. As a result, the information on this page may not be fully up to date.)
I had heard that Nissan Motor had an employee who was also a professor at the University of Tokyo. You might wonder how that could be possible, but this is the true story of Hideaki Horie and his exceptional career, which has seen him earn two major job titles of distinction, senior innovation researcher at Nissan Motor Company and project professor at the Institute of Industrial Science of the University of Tokyo. Horie led the team of people who worked on the research and development of the lithium-ion batteries used in the Nissan LEAF range.
‘I am a stickler for compliance. I work on car batteries at Nissan and I conduct research on future batteries for stationary power-plant applications at the university.’ These were Horie’s opening words when we started our interview and it made me realise that he is in a delicate position as he conducts R&D on advanced energy storage technologies.
Interview with Mr. Horie at University of Tokyo lab.
Horie was born in the city of Hiroshima in Hiroshima Prefecture in April 1957 and he lived there until he completed high school, after which he entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo and majored in science and engineering. Naturally, I assumed that a person who was a student at the University of Tokyo and ended up as a professor there must have been something of a prodigy in his childhood, distinguishing himself early on by, for example, conducting a scientific experiment as a summer research project that was so complex even his teacher had a tough time understanding it.
‘I hate to disappoint you, but I was quite an ordinary child. I liked science in general but from junior high school and high school onwards I was also interested in literature and philosophy. I read quite a few books in what are known these days as the liberal arts. The liberal arts involve learning that explores the basics of all things and that’s not really very different from physics and chemistry. When you dig down to get to the very bottom of things, you discover that what’s important is the power of human beings and that’s a common point for both the arts and science. So by the time I was in high school, I believed that it didn’t make much sense to divide people up into the two categories of science oriented and arts oriented. I have maintained that view ever since and from the mid-eighties I was actually a sort of closet Steve Jobs groupie (laughter). He always looked for the points where technology and the liberal arts intersected in the belief that this would produce new values and make people happy and he infused his belief into the products that his company developed. I found that approach very attractive.’
Lithium-ion battery (left: cylinder; right: laminated)
Horie asserts with pride that he may well have read more books than people who majored in the liberal arts, but in the end he decided to focus his university studies on physics. This decision was backed by a conviction of his own. ‘I believe that physics are the foundation of everything in our world. In the past, religion probably filled that role.’
Lithium-ion battery equipped Tino HEV. (1998)
After he received his bachelor’s degree, he went on to post-graduate work and obtained a master’s degree in physics from the Department of Physics at the University of Tokyo. He could have pursued a career as a researcher at the university, but he decided to work in a non-academic environment.
‘Universities make up full-fledged societies on their own, but in Japan there’s a tendency to think that they don’t really constitute a valid society. The Japanese tend to believe that you really only have a proper career when you are working for a company,’ he explained. ‘I chose Nissan Motor because it had research programmes devoted not only to automobiles but also to space and aeronautics and even marine engineering and I was also interested in transportation systems. I thought that I might be able to make a small contribution to society through the company’s vast range of research activities. And there was also one very important personal reason for my choice, namely, that Oppama in Kanagawa Prefecture, where the company’s research centre is located, was very close to the beach (laughter). I love the sea very much. When I was a student, I once spent an entire week just watching the sea and the summer clouds (laughter). There’s no particular reason for it, but I just love the sea.’
Compact lithium-ion battery introduced at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show.
Horie joined Nissan in 1985 and went to work on catalyzer development in the company’s Materials Laboratory. This was when there was a huge wave of catalyzer development taking place all around the world. Porsche and BMW were doing R&D on simple metal catalyzers, but Nissan developed and adopted catalyzers ahead of all other automakers, using them in production vehicles like the Skyline and the Laurel. Horie was involved in this R&D.
‘The truth is that chemistry wasn’t my strongest suit and I wasn’t very comfortable at first, but I learned a lot from that experience. It gave me an opportunity to learn chemical engineering from scratch and that helped me a great deal later, when I started to work on battery development.’
Compact lithium-ion battery equipped Effis.
After several years at the Materials Laboratory, Horie began to think about whether he wanted to remain a catalyzer expert or start research on something new. One day he heard a new word, ZEV, or zero-emissions vehicle. He confessed that he had very limited knowledge of the whole idea, except that ‘zero emissions must mean an electric vehicle’, but it stirred his interest. As it happened, around this time Nissan was launching the Electric Vehicle Team at its Chassis/Body Laboratory and Horie was asked to join the team.
‘I was assigned to the team on the first of February 1990. I was the only one working on the batteries for EVs. My boss told me to explore every possibility and to give it at least 10 years. I thought 10 years would be a long time (laughter), but in the end it has now been 20 years. If your expertise was in physics, normally they would have put you in a section working on such things as inverters or motors. But it’s the battery that controls an electric car and batteries were still in the process of being developed. If somebody established a basic framework for the system, latecomers would be obliged to work within that framework, so it would be valuable to be the first in the field to establish the name of the game. It’s easy to say all these things now, but at the time I knew next to nothing about batteries, so I started to study in the field from scratch.’
Battery production line at the Zama Operation Center.
While he was working on ‘research and development on high-performance electric power storage systems’ in the Chassis/Body Laboratory, Horie sometimes visited the professor who had overseen his studies at the University of Tokyo and eventually the professor suggested to Horie that he apply to enter the university’s PhD programme, assuring him that ‘it won’t get in the way of work’. ‘I worked on it all night almost every weekend and it took me six years to complete my doctoral dissertation.’ According to Horie, one of the members of the jury that evaluated his work jokingly said that his thesis was long enough and substantial enough for three normal doctoral dissertations. ‘It goes without saying that I didn’t use any company resources for my academic work and I didn’t even tell anyone at the company that I was working on a PhD. It was only after I had received my doctorate in 1999 that I told Nissan about it (laughter).’
Here was an employee with a doctorate, a very rare breed at an automaker.
Single catalytic metal equipped 7th-generation Skyline. (Photo: 1987 model)
Most people probably think that the LEAF was Nissan’s first EV, but that honour actually goes to the ‘Tama Electric Vehicle (lead battery)’, which was unveiled in 1947. The company continued to develop EV concept models and experimental vehicles and in 1996 it put on sale the Prairie Joy EV as a fleet vehicle. This was the world’s first EV powered by lithium-ion batteries. Hideaki Horie has always maintained his focus on lithium-ion batteries. The hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHVs) now available on the market basically all use either nickel-hydrogen batteries or lithium-ion batteries, but what is the difference between the two?
The first EV: the Tama electric car. (1947)
‘The electrolyte in lead-acid batteries [lead batteries] and nickel-hydrogen batteries is water, but water is not used in lithium-ion batteries. Water can be decomposed through electrolysis and it boils. We can compare a battery to a piggy bank. If you put 1,000 yen into a nickel-hydrogen piggy bank and then go to take it out, at room temperature you’ll get 970 or 980 yen, but if the temperature rises to around 45 degrees Celsius, you’ll only get 800 yen. If it rises to 50 degrees Celsius, you’ll only get half of the original amount you put in. In other words, you lose a big chunk of your savings due to electrolysis of the water. In addition, the more you consume, the more the process generates heat and that causes the situation to deteriorate further. It is highly sensitive to temperature. But lithium-ion batteries don’t use water. If you put 1,000 yen into a lithium-ion piggy bank, you’ll always get back 1,000 yen.
The Tama electric car replaceable battery.
‘There are other advantages to lithium-ion batteries as well. A standard lithium-ion battery produces four volts but a nickel-hydrogen battery only produces 1.2 volts, so for the same voltage, a lithium-ion battery is lighter and more compact. Also, 70% of a nickel-hydrogen battery is metal and the metal must be refined because any impurities would cause damage in the electrolyte. In contrast, the lithium content of a lithium-ion battery is around 2% of the total and the negative electrode is carbon, while the positive electrode is oxide, so it’s easier to stabilise product quality compared with a nickel-hydrogen battery.
‘Two weeks after I was assigned to the EV development team, Sony announced that it had developed a lithium-ion battery. Nissan Motor was the only automaker that decided to use lithium-ion batteries in its ZEV project. At the time, most people thought that it was impossible to generate a high level of power with lithium-ion batteries and that’s probably why other carmakers didn’t choose to go down this path, but we were convinced of their potential and didn’t even consider pursuing other options. And we were the first in the world to prove in theory and in experiments that lithium-ion batteries could produce a high level of power. Since then, of course, lithium-ion batteries have become the leading power source in the field.’
Lithium-ion battery equipped Prairie Joy. (1996)
In general, for laymen, a battery is just a ‘box’ that stores electricity, but Horie sees batteries as something totally different. So what is a battery in his eyes?
“Well, I do object somewhat to lithium-ion batteries being pigeonholed as being the same as all other batteries (laughter). We are living in the age of networks. If I may be so bold, I would say that after the information revolution, we may well enter an era in which we use electrical energy through networks.
‘The internal combustion system has low energy efficiency and generates heat and exhaust gases, so it’s difficult to put them in close proximity to human beings. For this reason, you can’t use them indoors and future robots won’t be powered by internal combustion. Meanwhile, batteries have great capabilities because they can do things that internal combustion can’t. However, it’s impossible to power every electric home appliance with batteries, so we have to generate electricity at power stations and deliver it to our homes. If you need 100 units of electricity, you make 100 units of it. But if you made 150 units of electricity thinking that you’d need that much and only used 100 units, you’d have to discard the extra 50 units. Supply and demand must be always equal and with batteries, you can store electricity. If you have extra units, you can save them and if you need more than you’d expected, you can retrieve them. In other words, batteries can work like a bank in an energy network.’
Altra EV (1997)
For Horie, the decisive difference between a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine and an EV is that the latter can be networked. A car with an internal combustion engine uses energy on its own and cannot share energy with others. Once the petrol or diesel fuel has been used, the vehicle has to be taken to a petrol station and refuelled and this applies to each individual car. However, an EV can recharge and supply electricity, so it is possible to share energy through points hooked up to networks. Rather than putting batteries at fixed locations around town, the batteries are equipped with motors and tyres and used as a means of transportation, i.e., as EVs. We use electric cables to connect an EV and recharge it with electricity and to receive electricity from it. This concept illustrates the core of Horie’s vision of ‘the networking of energy’.
‘Every year around 70 million cars are produced around the world and the number will continue to grow into the future. If we assume that the maximum potential output of each vehicle is 100kW and all 70 million vehicles are EVs, the total energy output is equal to that of 7,000 nuclear power plants. The auto industry has incredibly powerful potential, as can be seen in these numbers, but you won’t feel that potential as long as you are driving your car individually. And it’s not an effective way of using EVs. The true value of EVs will be only be realised when they are networked and this power is shared through the network.’
Through Horie’s eyes, I could see a concrete image of that kind of networked society of the future.
Mr. Horie gave interview
Profile of the writer
Born in 1966 in Tokyo. After graduating from a university in the US, he worked as an editor of Le Volant, an automobile magazine, before joining Car Graphic’s editorial staff in 1998. He left Car Graphic in 2003 and became a representative of MPI, an editorial production company, while also working as an automotive journalist. He also works as a chief editor for Car Graphic.