23 September 2020

Many ARC researchers are experts at building industry support to strengthen an existing research program, which can also provide a pathway to industry employment for new graduates. Professor Yusuke Yamauchi is one of a small number of ARC-supported researchers who are making these links directly with industry partners in Japan, and he has a vision of a bright future in manufacturing collaboration between Australian and Japanese industry.

Professor Yamauchi, who is currently based at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) and School of Chemical Engineering, The University of Queensland, arrived in Australia in 2016 to begin an ARC Future Fellowship at the University of Wollongong to work on the development of novel conductive nano-porous materials towards energy and environmental applications, and to solve the problem of scaling up their production for use in industry. Such porous materials, which contain complex holes and conductive pore wall structures at the nanoscale, have a number of intriguing electrochemical properties but have been challenging to produce at the scale required for industry applications.

“I joined Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science after graduating with my PhD at Waseda University in 2007,” says Professor Yamauchi. “Since coming to Australia, I have been quite actively engaging big companies in Japan and Australia, who have an interest in scaling-up the nano-porous metals technology for a number of applications.”

Professor Yamauchi says that one of the advantages of Australia is that it is a convenient location for manufacturing, with abundant raw materials, but it has a relatively limited pool of manufacturing knowledge. When united with some of Japan’s technology companies, which have extensive manufacturing expertise but are limited by their location on a small island, Professor Yamauchi says there is potential to build a mutually-beneficial collaboration.

Professor Yamauchi’s research team has been working with car manufacturer Toyota and several venture capital firms on the tailored design of nano-porous carbon for high-performance electrodes for fuel cells.

“With nanoporous materials, we can design them with many, many pores. It is a very beautiful nanostructure with a huge, huge surface area. They are perfect for the electrodes of fuel cells, which should possess large surface area, accessible porosity, high electrical conductivity and electrochemical stability.”

“We have also developed a new catalyst for converting water into hydrogen—which can be used as fuel in fuel cells or for realising a sustainable hydrogen society—using special metallic porous nanoparticles.”

Professor Yamauchi has also received support from the first grant awarded under the Rio Tinto Australia-Japan Collaborative Program, to address global warming with his new nanostructured metal catalyst to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful fuel.

Ranked as one of Australia’s top 40 researchers in 2019, and as a world-influential highly cited researcher (Chemistry division) for the last four years, Professor Yamauchi says that his ARC Future Fellowship has helped him to forge connections with Japanese manufacturers, as well as local companies to develop energy devices and environmental catalysts.

Image: Professor Yamauchi arranged for Australian students to travel to Tokyo to participate in a training program with Japanese manufactures, as part of potential the future Australia-Japan collaborations. Credit: Professor Yamauchi.

But one of the most exciting things for Professor Yamauchi has been the opportunities for his graduate students to experience working in the heart of the Japanese technology sector and government research organisation.

“Japanese companies often need English-speaking people, and suffer from a weakness in outreach because of this, so English-speaking graduates are highly valued. They are happy to take students!”

“I am a visiting professor at several universities and government research institutes in Tokyo—so I have been able to give Australian domestic students the opportunity to spend some of their time studying in Tokyo.”

So far, three of Professor Yamauchi’s Australian post-doctoral students have since secured placements in cutting-edge Japanese technology companies and government research institutes, expanding the network of collaboration that began with Professor Yamauchi’s own relocation to Australia.

“This is the reason why I moved to Australia,” says Professor Yamauchi. “I had chances to collaborate when I was in Japan, but I knew that if I came to an Australian university and did my research here, then I would become familiar with the Australian situation, and I have seen how many Australian companies are struggling."

“Now I have the connections, so when I go back and visit Japan, I can explain everything to the Japanese community, and promote more engagement with Australia—I am like a ‘power supply’ to boost the Australia-Japan collaboration!”