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HOME > No.27, Nov. 2021 > Feature Story : Supporting the electrification of society through wireless power transfer

Supporting the electrification of society through wireless power transfer

Shinji Abe

Shinji Abe

The electrification of automobiles and other vehicles is critical for the realization of carbon neutrality-the state of balance between the greenhouse gases emitted and absorbed. The current situation, however, is that battery-powered motors have a limited range, take a long time to recharge, and need to be connected to charging cables. Wireless power transfer is a technology capable of solving all of these problems at once. We interviewed Shinji Abe from Power Wave, a startup that originated at TUT aiming to build the key infrastructure of the future with this technology, about his reasons for starting the company and his vision.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

Desire to solve battery challenges

"I chose National Institute of Technology (KOSEN), Sendai College after junior high school because I had learned that the largest part of the volume of a cell phone is occupied by batteries," said Abe. He aspired to produce smaller, more efficient batteries to achieve the futuristic world depicted in science fiction, from which he drew the inspiration to become a researcher.

"At first I entered the Department of Electronic Engineering to do research on batteries, but then I became interested in computer algorithms and architecture, so I switched to the Department of Information Engineering. After that, I returned to the study of electricity, and in graduate school I went to after graduating from the KOSEN Advanced Course, I joined the laboratory of Prof. Takashi Ohira at Toyohashi University of Technology, who was working on wireless power supply for electric vehicles (EVs).

Trade-offs to be compromised on the issue of EVs penetration
Trade-offs to be compromised on the issue of EVs penetration

Gasoline-powered vehicles using fossil fuels are still currently the most common vehicles. However, with carbon neutrality being pushed as a solution to the limited supply of fossil fuels, it is reasonable to expect that energy-efficient EVs will become the standard for vehicles in the future. However, the current situation is that increasing battery capacity in order to increase driving range means increasing the weight and price of vehicles. In order to avoid such compromises, we need to build a system that supplies electricity only when it is needed. "One solution is the technology for wirelessly transferring power to moving vehicles," said Abe, explaining the significance of his research.

Launching a business is one way to change society

Abe reached a turning point in his path as a researcher while he was pursuing a doctorate. While conducting joint laboratory research with private companies, he started to appreciate the high level of demand for this technology from society. It seemed to him that researchers like himself and the other lab members were best placed, in terms of their understanding of the technology, to play a key role in how it should be applied to society.

"Once we started to try to raise funds for a university corporate partnership, I came to understand that our hands were tied by being part of the university structure. What is more, having been awarded a Research Fellowship for Young Scientists by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at that time, I was not allowed to take on any side businesses. In conclusion, I decided to leave the doctoral program, to take a position as a research assistant, and then to officially start setting up a business.

Members of Power Wave (left to right): Norito Oida, Minoru Mizutani, Shinji Ave, Takashi Ohira, Koichi Obata
Members of Power Wave (left to right): Norito Oida, Minoru Mizutani, Shinji Ave, Takashi Ohira, Koichi Obata

Thus Power Wave Co., Ltd. was established in March 2021, with the 29 year old Abe as its CEO. The four founders of the company are: Abe, Professor Takashi Ohira, Project Research Assistant Minoru Mizutani, and Mr. Norito Oida, the CEO of an IT-related startup company in Toyohashi City. In other words, a team comprising expertise in technology, venture management and leadership "

Did you experience any doubts about making the leap from R&D into the business world?

"I drew some confidence from my own father, who decided to switch from being a salaried worker to the owner of his own business. On top of that, I could draw on the advice of Mr Taneda, with his experience as a senior manager, so it was an easy decision in the end. Of course, there was a lot I didn't know about business management and I had some difficulties at first, but the more I studied, the more I got into it.
Basically, launching a business is a means to an end. To achieve my goal of spreading this technology to change society, I chose to form a company. "This technology has the potential to drastically change society, and I want to be a part of that change," explains Abe enthusiastically.

The benefit of university created startups: Trust based on established research is key

As it happends, the idea of wireless power supply has been around for a long time. . The first conceptual model was the World System, a system for transmitting electricity globally without wires, It was the brainchild of inventor Nikola Tesla, who was active from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. The appeal of this idea endured, but it was not until 2007 that a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) succeeded in wirelessly transferring electricy over a two-meter distance to power a 60W light bulb. This achievement opened a new frontier, and great advancements have been made towards practical application over the last decade.

Abe explained, "the most significant technological breakthrough was the theory for wireless coupling which was developed by TUT. Technically speaking, this theory involves the kQ product (multiplication of "coupling coefficient “k" by "quality factor") and the Poincaré model (non-Euclidean geometry measurement). The theory has made it possible to design wireless power transfer using the coupling of electric fields whereas previously this had been considered problematic. Another key breakthrough was the development of field-effect transistors (FETs) using Gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductors. Thanks to these FETs, the high-frequency inverter that converts direct current into large, very high frequency (MHz) electrical current was created."

This design theory using the coupling of electric fields and a high-frequency inverter are the core technologies behind Power Wave.

The credentials of this technology, an EV using a wireless power transfer system (or V-WPT: Via-Wheel Power Transfer) , have already been established. In 2016, while Abe was still a student, high-frequency power was successfully transmitted from a power transmission board underneath an asphalt road on campus to an EV equipped with a small battery and a receiver. This success marked the first batteryless drive in the world. In 2017, the following year, the laboratory also succeeded in transferring power to an unmanned, moving transport vehicle in a factory. Thus, Power Wave was firmly established with proven technologies.

"We were able to establish the company after more than a decade of research in our laboratory and with a good prospect of profitability. This is what makes us different from ordinary ventures. We have also obtained a number of patents under the university’s name. As a university-originated company, it has been easier for us to gain the trust of society. In the future, in order to grow I think it will be essential for us to create our own research department”

We set our sights high, and aim to become a company with market value over 1 trillion yen

Starting in October 2021, Power Wave commenced verification experiments with a personal mobility vehicle (a one-passenger powered cart) in Chubu Centrair International Airport. In this experiment, our wireless power transfer system will be incorporated into a personal mobility vehicle developed by Aisin (ILY-Ai), which will be used by airport staff. Up until now, charging has been done by cable, but by replacing it with a wireless system, it gives us a chance to see how it performs and to troubleshoot issues as they arise.

"If its user-friendliness is verified, we will be able to expand its use to facilities where similar mobility vehicles are used. Although it will be necessary to install high-frequency inverters and power transmission boards in the facilities, as well as power receivers in the mobility devices, the system can be retrofitted relatively easily, so I think it will be widely used not only in airports but also in plants, commercial facilities, hospitals, and other places where mobility and robots have already been introduced.”

If the system becomes widely accepted, the company is considering establishing a business model with fees based on electricity usage or a flat-rate subscription, rather than to the marketing of the system itself.

Mr. Abe says, "We aim to become a company with a market capitalization of more than one trillion yen, assuming that we can expand our business globally and use the system in electric vehicles by around 2030.” This is a very encouraging prospect. "As a manager, it's a huge advantage to be able to confidently explain the technology yourself. If students from Toyohashi University of Technology become business managers, they can similarly use their understanding of science and technology as their strength. It is my sincere hope that younger students will be inspired to follow a similar path."


Reporter's Note

Our first impression of Mr. Abe talking on the screen was of a researcher who cautiously selected his words. Towards the end of the interview, however, we could see a different side of him when he was talking about studying abroad as a student at KOSEN (National Institute of Technology). He took a year off from KOSEN and chose to study abroad in Brazil.

Trade-offs to be compromised on the issue of EVs penetration

"I thought that if I was going to go abroad, I might as well go to the farthest country from Japan. Many of the Brazilians I met were open-minded and fond of Japan, and I was also happy to learn Portuguese," said Abe. On top of this experience, he had a six-week internship in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in the Middle East. "I hope that my work allows me the possibility to visit many more places in the future," said Abe cheerfully. We predict a bright future for this young business manager and his can-do spirit.

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Researcher Profile

Shinji Abe

Shinji Abe

Shinji Abe graduated from Advanced Course of National Institute of Technology (KOSEN), Sendai College and entered to Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT) Graduate School in 2015. During TUT student, he awarded Research Fellowship for Young Scientists by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science from 2018 to 2019. After graduated, he started working as a project research associate at TUT in 2019. He established Power Wave Co., Ltd. in March 2021 and became the CEO.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of "Nature Interface" magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).