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NEC develops non-edible plant-based bioplastic featuring the elegance of traditional Japanese lacquerware: Realization of a "Japan Brand Material" exhibiting Japanese-style elegance

September 6, 2016

Photo:Urushi black

The need for plant-based bioplastics continues to grow in light of concerns over future depletion of oil supply and environmental considerations. In collaboration with the Kyoto Institute of Technology and a representative Japanese lacquerware artist, Dr. Yutaro Shimode, NEC has developed a bioplastic using resin (cellulose resin) from grasses, trees and other non-edible plant resources that features the highly regarded "Urushi black" coloring of Japanese traditional lacquerware. Future application of this "Urushi black" bioplastic is planned in NEC electronic devices, as well as for high value-added products such as car interiors, household interior fittings, luxury household appliances and luxury everyday items. A press announcement was made in Tokyo on August 17, 2016.

At the press briefing, Professor Hiroyuki Hamada of the Kyoto Institute of Technology's Future Applied Conventional Technology Center (second from left in photo); Japanese lacquerware artist, Dr. Yutaro Shimode, the third-generation president of the Shimode Makie studio and professor at the Faculty of Cultural Studies of Kyoto Sangyo University (far-left); Soichi Tsumura, General Manager, IoT Devices Research Laboratories, NEC Corporation (second from right); and Dr. Masatoshi Iji, Research Fellow, IoT Devices Research Laboratories, NEC Corporation (far-right) took the rostrum.

What is bioplastic?

Most plastics produced around the world today use our limited oil resources as raw materials, and are made by reaction under high temperature and high pressure conditions. This means that generation of high levels of CO₂ in the production process is an issue. Efforts are underway to mass produce bioplastics deriving from sustainable plant resources to help resolve the issues of global resource depletion and climate change. At present, most bioplastics are made from starch but due to concerns about a future food shortage, bioplastics using cellulose resins from non-edible grasses and trees are drawing attention.

This highly-anticipated bioplastic uses non-edible plant resources from grasses and trees as its raw materials.

NEC has been developing the unique cellulose-based bioplastic "NeCycle(R)" since 2000, aiming for harmony with the environment and functional enhancement. Until now, starch-based polylactate compounds, which are 75% or more plant-based (organic), high durability, flame retardant bioplastics, have been used in situations that require durability such as supply systems for gas stands, etc. rather than in products such as desktop PCs or projectors, etc.

Application to realize high value-added products with a high level of decorativeness

Bioplastics produced from cellulose resin have already been used in stationery, toys, and everyday items. Creation of a decorative, environmentally-friendly bioplastic with features offering new added-value is demanded to expand the scope of applications for use.

The "Urushi black" cellulose-based bioplastic was developed in collaboration with the Kyoto Institute of Technology and the Japanese lacquerware artist, Dr. Yutaro Shimode. Dr. Shimode is the third-generation president of the Shimode Makie Studio, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2015, and a professor at the Kyoto Sangyo University. He is a representative Japanese lacquerware artist and has been involved in the creation of top-grade lacquer art such as lacquer furnishings at the Kyoto State Guest House. With the cooperation of the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Dr. Shimode, NEC was able to realize for the first time as a bioplastic the beautiful "Urushi black" exhibited in high-quality Japanese lacquerware with its distinctive low brightness, high glossiness, depth, warmth, and shininess.

The lacquerware artist, Dr. Yutaro Shimode

A replicated fabrication of a Kodai-ji Makie-style lacquer folding screen, "Genji clouds with scattered chrysanthemum, maple and paulownia (government) seals," fabricated by Dr. Shimode.

More concretely, the development process involved, first, fabrication of a top-grade lacquer model by Dr. Shimode by coating a transparent resin plate with Japanese lacquer and repeatedly polishing its surface by hand. Then, the Kyoto Institute of Technology and NEC scientifically analyzed the light reflection characteristics etc. of this lacquer model. Finally, based on NEC's evaluation and analysis results, NEC developed the optimum compound technology of additional ingredients to be mixed in the bioplastic. The exquisite "Urushi black" of the lacquer model fabricated by Dr. Shimode exhibited the Japanese-style elegance distinctive to Japanese lacquer: depth, warmth, and an extremely low brightness (level 1) with the highest level (level 100) of glossiness that is equivalent to a mirror. To realize "Urushi black" using bioplastic, it was essential to modify and mix the additives for the molecular configuration to achieve the optimum coloring and light reflectivity and to achieve high distribution of these throughout the resin.

The new bioplastic realizing the deep "Urushi black" of high quality Japanese lacquerware

Conventionally, lacquerware is made by coating the surface of substrates with lacquer and polishing them by hand. In contrast, this newly-developed bioplastic is made in the same way as a conventional plastic, by heating, melting and injecting into metal molds (mirror-finishing) to form shapes (injection molding). This will enable the mass production of lacquer-appearance products in various shapes at low cost.

Molded samples of "Urushi black" bioplastic

Going forward, NEC will use this unique Japan-style elegance of the "Urushi black bioplastic," with its beauty that goes beyond what conventional petroleum-based plastics can provide, in high value-added products requiring high decorativeness. NEC is pursuing business partnerships with high-grade materials manufacturers and durable products manufacturers, with the aim of commercializing it as a "Japan Brand Material" in 2020. NEC explained its positioning as follows: "We noticed great interest in the elegance of Japanese lacquerware in America and Europe from our discussions with overseas durable products manufacturers. People outside Japan admire the unique beauty of Japanese lacquer. Moreover, it is an area that is hard for overseas manufacturers to expand into since it is a unique Japanese culture and technique. There is extensive need for this material in the market."

(September 6, 2016)

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