Changing the world of chemical manufacturing using microwaves, a technology that everyone is familiar with: that is the mission of Microwave Chemical. Since the late 19th Century, the main energy sources used for chemical production have been “heat” and “pressure”. The chemical industry comprises 30% of all energy and 17% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the manufacturing industry. Microwave Chemical’s aim is to replace all energy sources in the chemical industy with microwaves. This effect will reduce energy consumption by two-thirds, and reduce the area required by chemical plants to one fifth of the current size.The leader of this chemical industry revolution is the CSO of Microwave Chemical, Mr. Yasunori Tsukahara. Microwave Chemical has achieved co-development agreements with several corporates and is becoming the ‘big wave” in the chemical industry. We will go through the journey of Microwave Chemical with UTEC Partner Naonori Kurokawa.
Making big waves in the chemical industry with microwaves
Microwave Chemical Co.,Ltd. CSO
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SECTION01 : Microwaves will bring about a revolution in the chemical industry.
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Microwaves will bring about a revolution in the chemical industry.
At the heart of the chemical plant, is a portion called the “reactor” which is responsible for processing chemical reactions. The reactor allows the conversion of raw materials into pharmaceuticals, nanomaterials, electric components and other various functional chemical products. The reactor requires a source of energy in order to carry out chemical reactions. Microwave Chemical aims to replace the energy transfer method from the conventional heat conduction to that of a microwave. The method of energy transfer can be exemplified with what happens in the kitchen. From the inception of the chemical industry in the late 19th century, the conventional energy transfer method used was that of heat conduction. Just like when one puts a pan over a gas stove flame. Even though this way of heating has a long history, it takes a long time to heat up the contents because the heat is applied from outside the container (in this case, a pan), and the heat is not applied uniformly in the contents. On the other hand, the microwave method allows the heating of material through the vibration of the molecules of the contents, and hence mircrowave heating is capable of heating the contents from the inside uniformly and also allows for the heating time to be shortened.
There have been previous efforts to industrialize microwave technology for applications in chemical plants. However, the scale up of manufacturing devices is very challenging and the technology’s application at the industrial scale was thought to be impossible. Microwave Chemical’s breakthrough was that it was able to develop a technology that is able to render a heating performance that is just as effective at the industrial scale.
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Over the “pilot wall”, together
Microwave Chemical was started by Mr. Tsukahara and Mr.Iwao Yoshino, the current CEO. Before co-founding the company, Mr. Tsukahara had a vision to “grow university spin outs in to the world” and that’s why he chose to become a researcher at the engineering research department of Osaka University Graduate School. On the other hand, Mr. Yoshino had joined Mitsui & Co’s chemicals division and then went to get his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley. There he found he was profoundly interested in starting a technology venture that would impact the world. In 2005, Mr. Yoshino and Mr. Tsukahara met through a mutual acquaintence. For a year after that, they contacted each other and gathered information; and in 2007 they started Microwave Chemical. The company was started with the vision to become the “global standard for chemical plants” their office at the time was a room in an apartment block.
In order to break this “pilot wall”, Microwave Chemical decides to have its own factory to demonstrate the technology. Their idea was to say “if there is no precedent, we will make the precedent ourselves”. Mr. Tsukahara immediately started running around to raise capital to construct our very own factory. However, this idea faced negative reception from financial services and the venture capital industry. Having a factory implies the need for a construction cost and maintenance cost. Having large assets such as a factory goes against the theory of a venture company. The only venture capital that recognized their technology and future potential and invested was UTEC.
In 2011, UTEC invests around 120 million JPY to Microwave Chemical and the first ever microwave plant was born in Kobe. In this plant, Microwave Chemical built a facility capable of manufacturing 2 MT of chemicals.
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Installing Microwave Chemical technology to chemical plants around the globe.
We can now read newspaper articles written in ink manufactured with microwave technology. In 2014, Microwave Chemical raised another 1 billion Japanese yen with UTEC and completed the world’s first microwave plant “M3K”. In this facility, Microwave Chemical makes the raw material to ink called fatty acid ester using the microwave process. The ink is bought by one of the largest ink manufacturers in Japan: Toyo Ink. 150 companies have visited the M3K factory so far.
UTEC’s contribution was far from just funding Microwave Chemical. Mr. Tsukahara says that he deeply values the global network that UTEC has.
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FINAL SECTION Pure desire is the driving force of innovation
Pure desire is the driving force of innovation
In going forwards, Microwave Chemical will prove the usefulness of microwave processes in a wide range of use cases with various global corporations. Not only in the ink manufacturing that was previously mentioned, but also in food additives, pharmaceuticals, functional materials, electrical materials and fuels; the technology is being adapted to many use cases. Microwave Chemical is planning its plants to manufacture electrical materials for example in touch panels of electrical devices and also in plants manufacturing peptide medicines of peptidream, another former UTEC portfolio company. Microwave Chemical is currenlty solidifying the ground for an IPO.
The dream of Microwave Chemical to become the “global standard of chemical plants” is becoming a reality. Mr. Tsukahara, who wants to revolutionalize the world with his invention, says that the important factor to his drive is to properly understand what one really wants to do.