Creating next-generation technology that will revolutionize the future of smart energy and the global environmentYuji Maeda, Ph.D.
    Vice President of NTT Space Environment and Energy Laboratories

    Many technologies that support modern business and lifestyles, from cutting-edge technologies to the IT equipment systems around us, were created as a result of NTT R&D. Among the many different NTT laboratories, which have produced a wide range of research results, the Space Environment and Energy Laboratories were established with the particular aim of regenerating the global environment and realizing a sustainable and inclusive society. We asked Vice President Yuji Maeda about how these laboratories were founded, the content of their research, and their aspirations.

    Can you tell us how NTT Space Environment and Energy Laboratories was founded?

    Until about five years ago, there was an institute called the NTT Energy and Environment Systems Laboratories, which aimed to realize a low-carbon and environmentally sustainable society. They conducted research and development to save power in NTT communication buildings, to extend the life of communication equipment, to save resources, and to reduce the environmental impact of society as a whole. As a result of unifying energy-related R&D with NTT FACILITIES, INC. in order to strengthen R&D in conjunction with the NTT Group's energy business strategy, we closed the Energy and Environment Systems Laboratories in April 2015. I actually worked at the NTT Energy and Environment Systems Laboratories, and when I first joined NTT, I was doing research on electromagnetic compatibility.

    Now, five years since the closing of NTT Energy and Environment Systems Laboratories, we have started new measures for the smart energy business based on our new medium-term management strategy, and our response to SDGs and ESG management has had a major impact on the sustainable growth of our companies. Meanwhile, realizing next-generation energy such as nuclear fusion has become a real possibility, technologically speaking. The possibility has also emerged for new technologies, such as the IOWN (Innovative Optical and Wireless Network) concept, which can contribute to the regeneration of the global environment by overcoming limitations of existing technologies. I myself have been involved in research in various fields this whole time, including the environment and energy, medicine and healthcare, disaster prevention, as well as emergency management. A new research institute was created with the aim of developing technologies that will bring innovation to the smart energy field, including next generation energy, as well as technologies that will revolutionize the future of the global environment.

    What was the intent behind including the word “space” in the name of the laboratories?

    When it comes to environmental energy issues, we tend to only see what’s right in front of us. For example, within the NTT Group. As a result, we see only a small part of NTT here on earth, on the micro level. However, we are greatly influenced by outer space including the sun. Therefore, it is necessary for us to properly review and analyze ourselves from the broader and higher perspective of space, so we can predict and revolutionize the future. That is why we included “space” in the name.

    Could you tell us about the direction of your research?

    Broadly speaking, we have two directions. One is the “Zero Environmental Impact Research Project” and the other is the “Resilient Environmental Adaptation Research Project”.

    The “Zero Environmental Impact Research Project” is divided into the following three fields of research.

    1. Next-generation energy technology
    2. Energy network technology
    3. Sustainable systems

    First, let me discuss next-generation energy technology. I expect that IOWN will support the success of the fusion reactor developed by ITER (formerly the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) through comprehensive cooperation with ITER. Their tokamak fusion reactor is scheduled to be completed in 2035, with first plasma planned for 2025. The plasma temperature is designed to be 150 million degrees Celsius, in an attempt create a miniature sun. Maximum sensor data output from this experimental fusion reactor will be 50 gigabytes per second, a truly incredible rate. I think that this vast amount of sensor data can be transmitted through IOWN's ultra-low-latency, high-speed, large-capacity network, then simulated by digital twin computing in order to contribute to optimizing operations.

    We are also working on space solar power system, a technology which generates solar power with geostationary satellites in orbit 36,000 kilometers above earth, then transmit that energy wirelessly back to earth. We want to create a mechanism for wireless power supply using laser light. We have cultivated optical communication technology and photoelectric conversion technology in the communication field through the research we have done so far, and I intend for us to keep conducting research and undertaking challenges in optical wireless communication technology and high voltage photoelectric conversion.

    Our second direction is energy network technology in collaboration with NTT Anode Energy Corporation. I hope that we will be able to effectively link DC and AC power, make good use of renewable energy, and do local production for local consumption, so that the electricity generated in a certain geographic area can be used entirely in that area. We are conducting research to eliminate waste by controlling supply and demand, so as to optimize the balance between them. Being able to allocate the required amount of electricity where it is needed waste-free will contribute to mechanisms that provide the optimal communication environment by making optimal use of ICT resources, without requiring the attention of the user. This is the concept of CF (Cognitive Foundation), and a vision for realizing CF in an energy network.

    In our third direction, sustainable systems, we are working on CO2 conversion technology. This technology reverses CO2 emissions, so it is also known as negative emission technology. Specifically, we will take various approaches to developing technologies that convert CO2, such as improving the efficiency of artificial photosynthesis, improving the photosynthetic efficiency of plants, and extending the lifespan of plants through genetic engineering. With regard to recyclable materials, although biodegradable plastics have already been created, some of these plastics are too soft or too difficult to use, so we are working to develop something that can turn on a timer at the molecular level. We are already at a stage where we have nearly realized a mechanism to make plastic that looks like a normal solid material, but when it is exposed to strong ultraviolet light, it suddenly begins to decompose. If the plastic that people take for granted in everyday life can be replaced with recyclable plastic that has a decomposition timer, it will make a great contribution to sustainable living. We will pursue this research actively.

    The “Resilient Environmental Adaptation Research Project” is divided into the following two research areas in the field of risk management.

    1. ESG Management Science
    2. Proactive environment adaptation technology

    ESG management has recently become important as a criterion for making investment decisions, and every company is working on it. However, the reality is that many companies do E (environment), S (social), and G (governance) management separately. For this reason, we decided to use “future prediction” and “future transformation” as our keywords to work on risk management technology for ESG management. We will combine E, S, and G in cyberspace to make many predictions, and while it is difficult to say exactly how one event will lead to the next, we may make predictions about what we can do today to raise our stock prices next week, and this will contribute to our overall management. We have named this new academic field “ESG Management Science”, and although the specifics have yet to be determined, we will undertake new challenges in collaboration with outside experts.

    The second area, proactive environmental adaptation technology, is aimed at establishing technology for actively adapting to extreme weather and the environment. More sophisticated disaster forecasting will be key to developing this technology. Disaster forecasting of typhoons and other disasters is already being done based on information from the Japan Meteorological Agency. Before a typhoon passes, damage forecasts and communication failure response plans are made, enabling a faster recovery after that typhoon passes. I want to make this process even more sophisticated. We can do this with new technology that utilizes satellites. As announced on May 29, 2020*, we will use an ultra-wide area IoT sensor platform using low-orbit satellites. This was chosen as the theme for the third satellite in JAXA's Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program, with a small demonstration satellite due to be launched in 2022, and a technology demonstration experiment planned for 2023. Satellites and communication technologies are being researched in other laboratories, and we will study how to utilize the ultra-wide area IoT sensor platform. The satellite will orbit at a distance of about 500 kilometers, collecting information from inexpensive, commercially available IoT sensors for terrestrial use, then send it back to earth for analysis.

    Using this technology, we will build an ultra-wide area IoT sensor network that can realize more accurate weather and disaster prediction than ever before. By doing this, I think we may be able to even control the weather. If we could find the exact location of where a typhoon will start in the Pacific Ocean, we would be able to burn away the typhoon while it is still forming, using the laser light wireless power supply technology that I mentioned earlier. Another application is in controlling lightning. I think we can use drones to control lightning. It may sound silly, but it’s not unrealistic. If lightning strikes somewhere it shouldn’t, it can cause severe damage, but we can use a drone to make lightning strike where we want it to. In addition, we are actually considering how to store energy from lightning. We are seriously working on this technology, which we call “lightning charging”.

    Also, in terms of environmental adaptation, we can use space solar power system that I mentioned earlier on the ground, in order to wirelessly send laser light from NTT buildings to isolated evacuation centers or remote islands in the event of a power outage caused by a disaster. We are also studying optical fiber power supply technology, which sends power to communication equipment.

    1. *NTT Holding Company News Release (press release material in Japanese)
      May 29, 2020, adopted a technology demonstration plan as an innovative satellite technology demonstration theme to realize “20 Gbps super-communication between low earth orbit satellites and the ground, and ultra-wide area IoT data collection”

    Your research is quite advanced, always seeking to change the world. You have many initiatives underway, but some research is difficult to see in terms of cost effectiveness. What are your criteria for successful research?

    My goal isn’t to get results right away. Especially in the field of basic research, there are some themes for which we may not produce results for more than a decade. Furthermore, the current policy of NTT is to put more emphasis on the “research” side of research and development. That makes it hard to see the cost-effectiveness, but I intend to do a good job for the earth anyway, by publishing many papers that make a strong impact. I believe that the results will contribute to the business.

    I see. How many people work at the laboratories?

    In the beginning we had about 40 people, but I would like to increase that number to 100 people this year. I will scout outside and the company and conduct open recruitment, including both mid-career professionals and new graduates. I also hope to recruit more people from other NTT laboratories to bolster our ranks. And, of course, we will also focus on promoting collaboration with universities and other research institutions.

    What research fields do your current staff have experience in?

    Most of them are former members of the former Environment and Energy Research Laboratories. In particular, many of our staff were involved in research on energy, environmental management, and communication EMC (electromagnetic compatibility). We also have people from other laboratories doing disaster prevention research, as well as people researching sustainable technology, and some people from NTT Facilities.

    What kind of background are you looking for among recruits as you increase staff to 100?

    I hope to recruit people from a multitude of fields. Especially with regard to nuclear fusion, I want to attract people who understand the content of nuclear fusion simulations. While it is actually ITER conducting simulations, not us, we won’t know how to handle measurement data without people who have the particular skills. I would also like to recruit people who are familiar with communications and space, including satellites and space communications. Also, with regard to energy management, it will be important to have people with knowledge of networks, so I hope to recruit people with network skills. And of course I mentioned genomics, so I would also welcome experts who have genomics skills.

    I also hope to bring in people from the humanities and social sciences. Whether they are at an operating company or even outside of NTT, I hope to attract experts from fields such as economics, for example.

    That's very interesting. I think most people imagine research laboratories as only having people with science doctorate degrees.

    That's right. Certainly, in the past it was difficult for people who came from the humanities field to plot their career course with us, but now the times have changed. It's normal for various fields to be combined, and in fact new ideas cannot be conceived without doing so. There are some parts of our research that I feel more assured about because we have experts in social sciences and humanities involved. There is a place in our laboratories for those people to shine as well. So I hope that we can recruit people who are interested.

    Could you give a message for collaborating universities and companies?

    I have considered all sorts of ridiculous themes, including some that are far beyond anything NTT has never seen. I encourage anyone who is interested to contact us. Most of the themes we have are themes that NTT laboratories have never considered before. Because NTT is undertaking challenges in new fields, there are many areas where we lack the necessary skills, and I gladly invite anyone who can work with us on this to come and join us.

    Finally, could you give a message for young researchers?

    If you are a motivated person who can suggest interesting topics, not only the themes I introduced here, then I will provide you with many opportunities to do research, so I hope that a lot motivated and passionate people will come and join us. We will actively work on themes and fields which have never existed before. And we will offer proper support for each person's career plan. You may think that if you are absorbed in research at our laboratories for a long period of time, that you may miss chances for career advancement, but there is no need to worry about such a thing. In fact, even people like me, who always focused on research, can become vice president. I hope that many people will find joy and excitement in being able to concentrate on the research at hand.

    NTT Space Environment and Energy Laboratories

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