Ammonia’s Role in Japan’s Energy Plan

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Ammonia technology has been earmarked for a significant role in Japan’s green energy plans, a fact underlined by a new deal reached with state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

Japan is planning to adopt ammonia use for power generation under its 2050 decarbonization strategy, which was released last month. According to the outline, the government foresees that 10% of all power generation in the country will be produced by hydrogen and ammonia within thirty years.

Currently, these technologies do not produce any of Japan’s industrial or commercial power.

In this connection, last week the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and ADNOC signed a cooperation deal to accelerate joint development of commercially-feasible ammonia fuel technology. METI has a plan to start testing co-firing of ammonia at a commercial coal-fired power generation unit during FY2021, aiming to achieve a 20% co-firing rate. It will also develop ammonia-fired gas turbine technology.

Aside from the ADNOC deal, some private companies and the governmental Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) are getting in on the act, having last month launched a feasibility study to develop an ammonia supply chain in Russian Siberia.

Ammonia, a compound consisting of three parts hydrogen and one part nitrogen, contains about 18% hydrogen by weight, and it releases zero carbon emissions when combusted in a thermal power plant.

The drawback of ammonia fuel as a climate change tool is similar to the problem of hydrogen fuel: While it produces no carbon emissions when combusted as fuel, the process of making the fuel itself requires a great deal of energy which is currently supplied mainly by fossil fuels, thus undermining the potential benefits for the environment.

However, efforts are underway to create supply chains to produce “blue ammonia,” created with less polluting natural gas, and ultimately “green ammonia,” in which all stages of the process are linked to renewable energy sources.

Currently, Japan is prioritizing the development its supply chain for blue ammonia and not green ammonia due to the financial costs involved. Last September, Japan imported the world’s first shipment of blue ammonia from Saudi Arabia.

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AirMobility

Foundation: 2019

Headquarters: Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo

CEO: Hisashi Asai

Website

AirMobility is a Japanese startup aiming to build infrastructure for sales and services of future flying cars and taxis, also called eVTOL (Electric Vertical TakeOff and Landing). Its annual income is undisclosed.

News Timeline

2021

-AirMobility forms a tie-up with the more established Terra Drone on undisclosed terms.

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Terra Drone Enters Air Taxi Business

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Terra Drone has flagged its interest in entering the air taxi business by forming a tie-up with AirMobility, both of them Tokyo-based technology firms.

Terra Drone is an established player in its industry, was recently selected as the world’s No. 1 industrial drone service company in the Drone Service Provider Ranking 2020, compiled by Drone Industry Insights.

AirMobility is a newer firm, established in August 2019, aiming to build infrastructure for sales and services of future flying cars and taxis, also called eVTOL (Electric Vertical TakeOff and Landing).

The two companies have released no details about the full scope or possible financial terms of their agreement, but it does signal that this grouping will become one of Japan’s most serious players in the air taxi space, given Terra Drone’s established heft.

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Robot Baristas at JR East Stations

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — JR East has reached an agreement with a Singapore-based startup to deploy AI-powered robot baristas to selected train stations by July.

The Singapore firm, called Crown Technologies, counts its arrangement with JR East as its first major business deal since its launch. The unmanned robot barista, named Ella, can make up to two hundred cups of coffee per hour, and is designed for contactless retail operations in a high-volume environment. It can operate around the clock if called upon to do so.

Ella takes orders through a mobile app, and it makes coffee as well as specialty drinks. When completed, the robot barista notifies customers that their order is ready and serves the drink. The entire process is autonomous and contactless.

It was designed before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but fits in very well with contemporary health concerns.

On the AI front, Ella uses predictive analytics to forecast coffee serving demand, and is monitored to ensure that there are no malfunctions.

The financial terms of the agreement between JR East and Crown Technologies have not been released.

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Megabank and Mobile Carrier Partnerships

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — There is an emerging trend in Japan of megabanks starting to partner up with major mobile phone carriers.

The first move of this sort took place last June when SoftBank and Mizuho Financial Group announced that they would partner on delivering financial services via smartphones. Now comes news that the largest players in their respective fields, NTT Docomo and MUFG Bank, are also on the verge of forming a comprehensive tie-up on financial operations.

While the details of these partnerships are likely to have variations in terms of the range of financial services that they encompass, they hold in common the characteristic that customers of a certain mobile phone carrier will be given preferential treatment with the partner megabank.

In this way, it seems likely that mobile carrier services and banking services in Japan may increasingly be seen as part of a package deal.

Docomo and MUFG Bank have yet to publicly confirm their agreement, but in regard to its own arrangement with SoftBank last June, Mizuho commented, “The two companies will work to support and assist customers in realizing new lifestyles by cultivating the next generation of financial services that tailor finance businesses to different scenarios in people’s lifestyles, enabled by smartphones, as well as by offering highly convenient, new online services.”

If the Docomo-MUFG Bank deal goes forward, it seems only a matter of time before the other two major mobile carriers, KDDI and Rakuten, make their own bank partnerships, though only one megabank, SMBC, remains open for such an arrangement.

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GMO Offers First Yen-Pegged Stablecoin

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — GMO Internet has won approval from the New York Department of Financial Services to establish a limited purpose trust company, which will issue the world’s first regulated Yen-pegged stablecoin.

GMO-Z.com Trust Company, called GMO Trust for short, will soon launch both a Yen-pegged stablecoin (GYEN) and US Dollar-pegged stablecoin (ZUSD), both of which can be purchased and redeemed directly from GMO Trust.

These stablecoins will be 100% fiat-backed and always redeemable at a 1:1 rate and ne powered by Ethereum blockchain technology.

Ken Nakamura, president and CEO of GMO Trust, commented, “We’re breaking ground with our move to issue the first regulated Yen-pegged stablecoin, which many see as a safe haven asset. But we are also pioneers and innovators in this space who envision building new applications of blockchain technology that transform our relationship with traditional financial services.”

Kurt Bierbower, the firm’s senior vice-president of business development, added: “We seek to dramatically reduce execution times and expand the digital options for retail and institutional clients in trading, settlements, payments, lending, and remittances. But our goal is also to leverage our twenty-year history in this space to meet the highest standards of reliability and security as a regulated entity.”

Tokyo-based GMO Internet Group operates an online FX trading platform. It also operates a Financial Services Agency (FSA) regulated internet bank. In 2017, it launched a digital currency exchange regulated by the FSA and a large Bitcoin mining operation.

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Mitsubishi Corporation

Foundation: 1918

Headquarters: Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

President and CEO: Takehiko Kakiuchi

Website

Mitsubishi Corporation is Japan’s largest trading company. It has seven business segments, including finance, banking, energy, machinery, chemicals, and food. Its annual income is in the range of US$50 billion.

News Timeline

2021

January

-Mitsubishi Corporation’s Food Industry Group signs an MoU with Aleph Farms of Israel to bring whole-muscle steaks cultivated from cells to Japanese dinner tables.

2020

June

-Mitsubishi Corporation and NTT Anode Energy Corporation agree to study collaboration in the energy sector.

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PS5 Underperforming in Japan

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — The PlayStation 5 console may be a hot item in much of the world, but recent data reveals that its launch in Japan has been rather unimpressive.

According to Shukan Famitsu sales data for the week of December 14-20, a total of 15,122 PS5 consoles sold in Japan. In terms of game hardware ranking, that put it far behind the 211,000 Nintendo Switch gaming system and not much higher than the PS4, which sold more than 10,000 consoles during the same week. As of December 20, fewer than 200,000 PS5 consoles had been sold in Japan.

Some analysts, notably Hideki Yasuda of the ACE Research Institute, suggested that Sony Interactive Entertainment may be increasingly disrespecting its home market in Japan and prioritizing international markets. He even goes so far as to assert that, in response to this perceived neglect, many Japanese users justifiably “feel a sense of hopelessness” about Sony’s new direction, and even that “early PS5 trends have shown that the PlayStation brand in Japan is in decisive decline.”

However, not everyone seems to agree with Yasuda’s dramatic view. Analyst Serkan Toto of Kantan Games, for example, tweeted skeptically, “The PS5 barely launched and a Japanese analyst says it is already in decline over here. Well, then.”

It is likely far too premature to declare the PS5 a failure in Japan, but it is fair to say that, unlike the response in much of the rest of the world, the initial reception in its homeland has so far been a little bit cooler.

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Mercari: Japan’s First Unicorn

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Mercari was founded in February 2013 by entrepreneur Shintaro Yamada, who had come to the conclusion that there could be a bright future for a new Japanese mobile app that offered a fixed price customer-to-customer service, quite similar to an online flea market.

Yamada had once interned with Rakuten, helping to develop Rakuten Auction, while he was studying at Waseda University. It was after a number of other moderately successful ventures—and after a six-month tour of the world hitchhiking and staying in cheap hostels—that Yamada recruited two colleagues, fellow Waseda alumni Tommy Tomishima and Ryo Ishizuka, and launched the new venture.

Settling on the name Mercari, which means “market” in Latin, the app went online in Japan in both Android and iOS versions in July 2013.

It was an immediate hit with the Japanese public, gaining more than 50,000 users and more than 10,000 listings within three weeks of launching on Google Play.

Innovations

Mercari was not the first online flea market in Japan. The pioneer was Yahoo! Auctions, which launched back in September 1999. Rakuten Auction, where Yamada had interned, was established in December 2005.

But there were several features that allowed Mercari to gain a strong foothold and that contributed to its early success. These can be boiled down to two broad themes—simplicity and security.

Unlike its competitors, Mercari was built for the smartphone era. Potential sellers and buyers could easily browse through the items for sale or post their own. Putting an item up for sale on the other sites could sometimes be a cumbersome process, and one which required use of a computer rather than a mobile device.

But with Mercari, people could just take a quick snapshot on their mobile, fill in a brief description on the app, and then immediately begin the selling process. It took just a few minutes to complete the listing.

This created a much lower barrier to entry. For the many Japanese who owned a smartphone but not a personal computer, it gave them access to this kind of customer-to-customer market service for the first time.

In this way, Mercari created its own culture in Japan, with people unafraid to list even very cheap items that would rarely find their way to the established auction sites. Many people, including some seniors, took advantage of Mercari to clean out their homes of unwanted stuff that they had collected over the years, making a small bundle of cash in the process.

Aside from the virtue of simplicity, the Mercari founders also understood that fear of fraud was a major barrier for many Japanese to begin to utilize such a flea market app.

Buyers needed only tap a button to make their purchases, but what security did they have that the item would actually arrive and turn out to be what was advertised?

Mercari solved this problem by handling the payment process itself. The payment was held by the service secretariat until the purchaser confirmed that the promised item had been delivered. Only then was the payment released.

Also, in addition to using credit cards, payments could be made at convenience stores or by bank ATMs, making the process as painless as possible.

Finally, the Mercari system allowed buyers to remain anonymous, something which was well appreciated in privacy conscious Japan.

Growth

In its early years, Mercari moved from strength to strength. The startup’s growth continued to be spectacular.

Only one year after launch the Mercari app had gathered over 4.5 million users with more than 100,000 new items being listed on a daily basis. Transactions at this point were rising above US$10 million per day.

Investment flowed in from major Japanese venture capital funds, including East Ventures, Global Brain Corporation, Globis Capital Partners, United Incorporated, and World Innovation Lab.

Then, demonstrating a global ambition unusual for a Japanese startup, the Mercari app was launched in the US market in September 2014, with the company’s advertisement describing itself as “Japan’s mobile shopping obsession.”

Mercari’s growth continued, and in March 2016 the company gained the distinction of reaching a valuation of over US$1 billion, thus becoming Japan’s very first startup to gain “unicorn” status. Not only had the firm become a success for itself, it also became a symbol that Japan’s startup community as a whole had finally arrived in the big leagues. It was a shot of adrenaline for many other young Japanese entrepreneurs.

Continuing its aggressive approach, Mercari branched into the United Kingdom in 2017, quickly securing the top spot in the UK app store shopping chart soon after launching. This was intended to be the first step toward gaining a foothold in the wider European market.

Finally, in June 2018, Mercari gave up its unicorn status to go public on the stock market. It had a smashing debut, with shares rising as high as ¥6,000, hitting their daily limit high and valuing the company at as much as US$7.4 billion.

Challenges

By this point, however, not everything was going Mercari’s way, and some of the challenges were serious enough to put the company’s longer-term future in jeopardy.

In its Japanese home market, Mercari was discovering that its great advantage of having a low barrier to customer entry could also sometimes be a problem.

The ease of listing meant that low quality or even illegal goods could find their way onto the network. While brand-name goods were popular on Mercari, buyers couldn’t always establish their authenticity. Transactions involving fake goods left some buyers with a disappointing experience of the app.

There were also some creative but troublesome products that were listed for sale, including such things as completed school assignments allowing students to escape doing their homework.

Perhaps the best known challenge of this kind emerged in early 2017 when Mercari allowed users to sell contemporary coins and paper money—in addition to old collectable coins and bills—with the intention of serving customers who wanted to buy and sell bills and coins with rare printing or minting errors.

This led to the curious circumstance that some people began selling ordinary money on the app. For example, a perfectly ordinary ¥10,000 bill might be put on sale for the purchase price of ¥12,000. The solution to this head-scratcher was that some people who were desperate for immediate cash might obtain money quickly over Mercari using their credit cards, which they could pay back later. In other words, it was a usury scheme.

Despite such bumps in the road, Mercari continued to perform well in its home market of Japan. It was in the firm’s various attempts to expand that it ran into more serious trouble.

The US branch became a perennial loss-maker. Although Yamada had once declared that Mercari had no direct competitor in the US market, since the firm would concentrate exclusively on the peer-to-peer resale of everyday goods, it struggled to make headway against the likes of eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon.

For years the company founders described their US venture as still being in the “investment phase,” a far cry from the instant success that Mercari had experienced in Japan. Financial losses mounted, dragging down the balance sheet of the overall enterprise and disappointing the hopes of stockholders who received no profit from their investment.

The situation was even worse in the United Kingdom, where Mercari proved to be unprepared for local conditions, and struggled even to let people know that its service existed. With its hands full trying to compete in the US market, the company announced that it would cease its European service from January 2019, less than two years after it had launched.

The retrenchment was not only geographical, as a number of branch operations it had tried within the core Japanese market failed to gain sufficient traction. These misfires included a marketplace for books and DVDs called MercariKauru; fashion goods flea market app MercariMaisonz; and its live video-supported trading service, Mercari Channel.

Directions

Japan’s first unicorn has thus had a rough ride since it went public in June 2018, humbled by its missteps, but far from defeated.

Innovation has also continued on Mercari’s main platform with new services such as Instant Pay, which lets verified sellers receive their money in only minutes; and Mercari Authenticate, which remotely authenticates sellers’ handbags after they upload comprehensive photos of the bag through the Mercari app.

One branch to which it is more committed is Merpay, its cashless payments business. Since Merpay’s launch in November 2017, it made the wise decision not to try to go it alone in this fiercely competitive space. Rather, it collaborated in March 2019 with Line Pay to form the Mobile Payment Alliance, allowing users of either service to pay for goods across both brands’ merchant footprints. A few months later NTT Docomo added its considerable heft to the grouping.

By early 2020, Merpay had gathered 5 million users, but was encountering stiff competition. It responded by buying out rival cashless payments startup Origami.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, Mercari launched its first brick-and-mortar operations in Japan, opening outlets in Shinjuku and Musashi-Kosugi. These outlets, called Mercari Station, allowed people to take pictures of their merchandise in a booth so they can post ads online, and then wrap and send the goods for sellers who place them in a “Mercari Post” mailbox. Staffers are also on hand to teach customers how to use the Mercari app. In this way, the firm hoped to reach out to tens of millions of untapped users.

By the second half of 2020, boosted by a pandemic-related surge in online sales, it appeared that Mercari was beginning to claw its way out of the hole. In the July-September quarter, it was able to report its first profits since it had gone public. It still wasn’t clear if it would ultimately succeed or fail in the United States, but the Japanese startup was still in the fight.

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Toyota Hatches the C pod

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Toyota Motor has launched the ultracompact two-seater electric vehicle that it demonstrated at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, but for the time being sales will be limited to business clients and local governments.

Toyota says that the C pod is aimed at short-distance daily use, corporate users visiting customers on a regular basis, and at users in urban or mountainous communities.

The C pod has a cruising range of up to 150 kilometers and supports standard charging, which takes about five hours. It can travel up to 60 kilometers per hours.

With a cabin width of 1.1 meters, the interior provides a simple space for two average-sized adults to sit side-by-side.

Head of Development Akihiro Yanaka stated of the C pod during last year’s motor show, “We want to create a mobility solution that can support Japan’s aging society and provide freedom of movement to people at all stages of life. With the ultracompact battery electric vehicle, we are proud to offer customers a vehicle that not only allows for greater autonomy, but also requires less space, creates less noise, and limits environmental impact.”

The suggested retail price for a C pod is ¥1.65 million (US$16,000), but the general public is not expected to be able to purchase this model until sometime in 2022.

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Mercari

Foundation: 2013

Headquarters: Minato Ward, Tokyo

President: Shintaro Yamada

Website

Mercari is a Japanese e-commerce company currently operating in Japan and the United States. It is the first Japanese startup to reach unicorn status. Its annual income is in the range of US$500 million.

News Timeline

2020

April

Coming Soon!

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Scrum Ventures Funds FoodTech Innovation

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Scrum Ventures, an investment platform focused on Japan and the United States, has announced its list of early accepted startups, many of them Japanese, to its Food Tech Studio – Bites!, a global program aimed to solve the key challenges plaguing the food supply chain.

Food Tech Studio – Bites!, described as “a stage-agnostic, global community of best-in-class startups with a common vision of bringing better and more efficient processes within the food development ecosystem,” will address, among other things, the safety, waste reduction, and health issues faced by foodtech startups.

This is done in part by introducing the accepted foodtech startups to major corporations and industry thought-leaders who might help them along to the next stage in their journey.

This week Scrum Ventures released the names of the first twenty startups that will be a part of the program, with six of them being Japanese: CANEAT, COMP, Exawizards, FoodCode, Gifmo, and MiL.

There were said to be hundreds of foodtech startups from around the world that made applications.

Aside from the startups, Japanese companies dominate the list of “partners” and “strategic partners” that support the program. The combined list includes Fuji Oil Holdings, Nissin Foods, Ito En, Nichirei, Otsuka Holdings, Fujicco, House Foods, Kagome, Tokyo Gas, SIGMAXYZ, Hakuhodo, Tokyo Tatemono, Tsuji Culinary Institute, Hitachi Global Life Solutions, JR East, and Orange Page.

The complete list of startups to be accepted to the program is expected to be announced next month.

Scrum Ventures is based in San Francisco, but most of its officers are Japanese nationals, including founding partner Tak Miyata.

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KDDI Wavelength Zone in Tokyo

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — On December 16, KDDI deployed Japan’s first “Wavelength Zone” in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

A Wavelength Zone is an infrastructure offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) which now puts special computational and data storage services on the edges of au’s 5G network, offering ultra-low latency (i.e. very fast) application traffic.

Although increased bandwidth and lower latency are key advantages of 5G over its predecessors, this really only applies to the functionality of its wireless component. The true power of 5G cannot be unlocked until the response time of the internet component is also boosted. The creation of the Wavelength Zone is a significant step in this direction, putting computational and storage services closer to the end users without leaving KDDI’s telecommunications network.

KDDI expects that with the boost from the Wavelength Zone, latency within its Tokyo 5G network will be less than half of that in its 4G network.

This development of “mobile edge computing” is anticipated to be critical for the future provision of services such as autonomous driving, streaming 4K or 8K video, virtual reality, and better performance within multi-player video games.

Similar services have already been rolled out by AWS in several US cities.

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World’s Fastest Electric Car

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Osaka-based Aspark Co. has developed what it calls the “the fastest accelerating car in the world,” which can go from from 0 to 60 mph in 1.69 seconds.

The Aspark Owl, which the company also declares has “kicked off a new era in full-electric hypercars” was unveiled at the Dubai International Motor Show in November 2019, but has just begun to go on sale this month.

The body, chassis, and many of the components of the Owl are constructed from carbon fiber. It also has four powerful electric motors (total power of 1480 kW with 2012 horsepower), a unique torque vectoring system (around 2000 Newton meters), an exclusive battery system, and a handmade interior. It has a range of about 450 kilometers.

Don’t expect to see the Owl flying around your local neighborhood, however, because the company intends to produce only fifty of these vehicles and their sales price is about US$3.4 million each. Several orders have already been received, but more of these vehicles may be sold in Europe than in Japan.

Although Aspark is based in Osaka, development has proceeded mainly at its manufacturing site in Turin, Italy, with the participation of more than a hundred technicians from about thirty companies. Initial development began in 2015.

Aspark is mainly known as a provider of engineering services for the automotive industry, as well as for electronic and industrial sectors.

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Octopus Energy Enters Partnership with Tokyo Gas

London (Octopus Energy) — Octopus Energy Group announces they have agreed a major strategic partnership with Tokyo Gas, one of Japan’s leading utilities, in a deal that values the UK entech pioneer in excess of US$2 billion.

The agreement will see Octopus Energy and Tokyo Gas launch the Octopus Energy brand in Japan, operated by TG Octopus Energy, a 30:70 joint venture backed by working capital and growth funding provided by Tokyo Gas. International tech haven Tokyo will function as a launchpad for Octopus’s expansion into the Asian market.

Octopus Energy in Japan will provide 100% renewable electricity amongst other services, helping to drive green energy in the world’s biggest competitive energy market. Japanese renewables lag the UK by 50% (renewables in Japan in 2019 accounted for 18.9% of electricity vs 37.9% in the UK) but the potential is huge and Octopus Energy aims to be at the forefront of driving this, supporting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s target of reaching net zero by 2050.

Octopus’ technology platform ‘Kraken’ will be licensed by the joint venture to deliver an improved customer experience and cleaner and smarter energy solutions to Japanese households. Today, Kraken is already contracted to serve 17 million energy accounts worldwide through Octopus’ own retail businesses, plus agreements with Good Energy, Hanwha Corporation, Origin Energy, nPower and E.ON.

The deal also sees Tokyo Gas take a 9.7% equity stake for consideration of US$200 million, alongside an approximate further US$50 million equity investment from Origin Energy, to continue its global expansion and technology development. This will see Octopus enhancing its smart grid capability and commitment to driving the green energy revolution around the world.

Since Origin’s initial investment in April 2020, the fast-growth disruptor has launched in the USA and Germany, as well as deepening its capabilities with the acquisition of Upside Energy, specialists in smart grid technology. In the UK it has launched Electric Juice, the country’s first electric vehicle roaming network, and partnered with Tesla to launch Tesla Power. In November 2020, Octopus Energy was named “Technology Company Of The Year” at the National Technology Awards.

Speaking for Octopus Energy, Founder and CEO Greg Jackson said: “We are delighted to announce our agreement with Tokyo Gas, one of the most respected and successful Japanese utilities, to launch ‘Octopus Energy’ in Japan. This joint venture will bring our exciting approach to renewable energy and technology to the world’s largest competitive energy market, and the investment will turbocharge our mission to revolutionize energy globally.”

Speaking for Tokyo Gas, President and Representative Director Takashi Uchida, said: “I believe Octopus Energy, which is delivering diversified tariffs and services using digital technology through low costs in the UK and overseas, is the most appropriate partner for Tokyo Gas. Through this partnership, we will contribute to the achievement of a better lifestyle for customers by realizing value creation and delivery tailored to every one of them.”

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Wind Power to the Rescue

By Tim Hornyak

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — In Japanese history, kamikaze was the “divine wind” that protected Japan from Mongol invasions and inspired suicide attacks in the Pacific War. Now, as the country struggles to balance its energy needs with sustainability, it’s again hoping wind power will come to the rescue.

Resource-poor Japan has to import most of its energy, but offshore wind is poised to become a significant component in a new energy mix. In October 2020, the Japanese government said it would reduce the country’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and now it’s moving to set up coastal wind turbines to help meet that goal. Zero emissions wind power is seen as one component of the new net zero strategy.

According to a government-industry energy panel that met in December, Japan will increase offshore wind power generation capacity from 20,000 kilowatts currently to 10 gigawatts (GW, or 10 million kilowatts) in 2030 and 30 to 45 GW by 2040, the equivalent of 45 nuclear reactors’ combined capacity. The panel’s decision follows a 2019 law that authorizes offshore turbines to operate for thirty years, much longer than the existing five years allowed by local governments, and designates eleven sites for offshore wind farms including areas in Akita, Chiba, and Nagasaki prefectures.

The power targets would make Japan the world’s third-largest offshore wind electricity generator. They would also be part of a broad effort to drastically ramp up the scale and capabilities of the domestic offshore industry including developing next-generation technology for Japan and the Asian market. In a 2019 report, the International Energy Agency said offshore wind could fulfill Japan’s power needs by over ninefold by 2014 if floating wind turbine technology is further developed.

“Considering the high population density and limited land availability of the country, it simply makes sense to take advantage of the power potential of offshore wind on Japan’s 29,751 kilometer coastline to drive the country’s energy transition,” Jin Kato, president of the Japan Wind Power Association (JWPA), said earlier this year in announcing a Japan task force with the Global Wind Energy Council.

Japan’s renewed push comes despite a costly failure. The government recently decided to scrap three loss-making wind turbines off Fukushima Prefecture, part of a set of three that were installed from 2012 at a cost of ¥60 billion (US$580 million) in a bid to revitalize the area devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The turbines had operating rates of only 4% to 36%, below the 30% to 35% needed for commercial viability, according to Kyodo News. Meanwhile, industry growth is also hobbled by red tape: In February, the Global Wind Energy Council noted that “the full scale of Japan’s offshore wind potential has yet to be unlocked due to regulatory and industrial bottlenecks.”

“Taiwan decided to work on offshore wind after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and quickly surpassed Japan,” Yoshinori Ueda, a JWPA board member, told Japan Times. “Japan is slow. No other country spends as long as five years on environmental assessments. We are requesting that the government take a central role for spearheading offshore wind like in Europe, so that the private companies would only need to build turbines.”

In 2016, Marubeni, one of the players in the Fukushima installation, set up Akita Noshiro Offshore Wind, a company focused on developing 139 megawatts worth of wind power in the Sea of Japan off the northern prefecture. With an investment of some ¥100 billion (US$922 million), it is Marubeni’s largest wind project to date in Japan. It is slated to begin commercial operations in 2022 and could supply power to about 130,000 households.

Japan is trying to play catchup in the field after decades of dabbling in sustainable energy. While Japan played host to the Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty negotiations in 1997, the country has been slow to embrace significant change in recent decades. The 2011 quake resulted in tsunamis and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The country’s 54 pre-2011 nuclear power plants were put offline for relicensing, and nine are currently back in operation after passing more stringent safety regulations. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019, Japan’s energy generation mix consisted of 77% fossil fuels such as liquefied natural gas and coal, 17% renewables, and 6% nuclear power.

“Offshore wind power has exceptionally high domestic potential compared to Japan’s electricity demand, making it an important energy source for decarbonization in Japan,” wind power researcher Shota Ichimura writes in a column for Renewable Energy Institute, a nonprofit thinktank established by SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son in 2011. “In addition, given the large scale of projects and the diverse range of related industries involved, it will be necessary to attract both domestic and foreign investment to grow the industry into a new leading industry in Japan.” 

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Japan Pushes the O-RAN Alliance

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — With the addition of Rakuten Mobile in early November, all four of Japan’s mobile operators (Docomo, KDDI, SoftBank, and Rakuten) have joined the O-RAN Alliance, a worldwide community promoting open and fully interoperable radio access networks (RAN).

NTT Docomo was one of the founding members in February 2018, and the others joined not long afterward.

In basic terms, RAN are an essential part of any mobile network which communicates via radio frequencies between a core network and devices such as mobile phones and computers.

Open RAN (O-RAN) stands in contrast to the RAN operated by a handful of companies (Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson) in the sense that it doesn’t rely on the proprietary technology of a single firm but is instead a set of agreed standards, specifications, and interfaces to which multiple vendors may contribute and participate. This difference could be analogized to Apple computers, which are a closed system developed and entirely controlled in a vertical fashion by Apple, and PCs from multiple vendors that can run on Microsoft software.

Among the Japanese mobile operators, it may turn to be Rakuten, which has the advantage of building out its mobile network from scratch, which is the most aggressive in its approach. Chief Technology Officer Tareq Amin recently declared, “At Rakuten Mobile, we believe that Open RAN is the future evolution of mobile networks. As a member of the O-RAN Alliance, we will leverage the experience gained from the development of our open, virtualized network in Japan to contribute to the creation of a fully open standard for RAN for the world.”

Among the more established mobile operators, Docomo seems to be the most proactive. Senior Vice President Naoki Tani recently stated: “The widespread adoption of O-RAN-compliant products will enable Docomo to build highly flexible networks and provide 5G services that meet customer needs.”

Aside from the mobile operators, other Japanese firms have joined the alliance in hopes of becoming major suppliers of O-RAN compliant equipment. These include NEC, Fujitsu, Kyocera, Sumitomo Electric, Dengyo, and Denki Kogyo.

It should also be noted that Japan is likely to become host to a future Open Test and Integration Center (OTIC), a facility that tests and verifies that equipment produced by various vendors meets the O-RAN standards and is truly interoperational. The first of these OTIC was established in Berlin.

More broadly, many Japanese companies, as well as the government, are hoping that the O-RAN Alliance will allow Japan to play an important part in the creation of 5G networks, a race in which the country had fallen well behind competitors in China and Europe.

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AR to Trick Your Taste Buds

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Researchers at Yokohama National University have developed an Augmented Reality (AR) visor that can trick your taste buds into believing that an item of food is more moist and delicious.

It is an established fact that human perception of taste is affected not only by direct interaction with taste buds, but also by the expectations created by sight and smells. The AR visor can thus manipulate the perception of taste by changing the way that light bounces off an object, in this case a piece of food, and thus altering one’s expectations.

The studies found, however, that some aspects of taste can be manipulated in this way more easily than others. For example, while changing the light patterns can impact perceptions of moistness and perhaps freshness, it appears to exercise little effect on perceptions of sweetness.

The Yokohama researchers plan to continue with other kinds of tests in order to understand more fully the connections between sight and taste.

The practical applications for this technology also remain to be explored, but it has been suggested that such AR visors might be used to make hospital food “taste” better.

But whether or not such a scheme to trick our taste buds is actually desirable is, well, a matter of perception.

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JAXA Yamato eVTOL Cargo Pod

JAXA (Tokyo) — Japan Aerospace Exploratory Agency (JAXA) and Yamato Holdings have announced their collaboration on a cargo pod for an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aerial system. The two organizations have worked together in designing and evaluating the aerodynamic shape of the PUPA8801 heavy-size eVTOL cargo pod.

PUPA8801 is a 400 kilogram payload-class variant of the PUPA (Pod Unit for Parcel Air-transportation) series which Yamato has been developing, and is transportable by either being loaded onto existing ground transports together with conventional load units, or else externally attached onto future eVTOL aircraft.

During ground transportation, the pod needs to follow existing cargo unit size standards and be as rectangular as possible in order to maximize its capabilities. On the other hand, the pod is also required to obtain high aerodynamic performance as it is intended to be attached to the aircraft externally to enable rapid loading and unloading. Regarding these constraints, PUPA8801 had to be designed in an innovative manner that differs from traditional aerospace and logistics equipment.

To cope with this issue, Yamato has conceptualized the pod based on its know-how on ground logistics that originates on its century-old business, and from studies on cargo eVTOL system the company has performed. For this initial concept, JAXA provided expertise in aeronautics and performed a series of computational fluid dynamics-based analyses for improving aerodynamic efficiency, using its high speed fluid analysis tool FaSTAR. The organizations held an open discussion to turn the hypotheses construction and evaluation loop rapidly and verified its aeromechanical feasibility within a period of about four months.

Based on these results, Yamato will further develop the necessary components for the new-age eVTOL logistics service that the company is intending to become by the early 2020s.

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Fujitsu Grabs Checkout-Free Stores

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — Fujitsu has made a big move into emerging checkout-free retail store industry by signing a deal to become the exclusive distributor of Zippin’s checkout-free technologies in Japan.

The agreement was concluded after a successful field trial that Fujitsu and Zippin conducted with the cooperation of the Lawson convenience store chain earlier this year.

San Francisco-based Zippin has been developing a platform that tracks shoppers from directly overhead with cameras, combined with data from shelf sensors, to try to ensure the highest level of purchase accuracy even in crowded stores. This can allow shoppers to avoid checkout lines, simply walking out of the store and confirming that their purchases were recorded accurately on their smartphones.

Fujitsu has now become Zippin’s first exclusive distributor in any market, and it may integrate its own multi-biometric authentication systems for the Japanese market.

Hirohisa Yamaguchi, corporate executive officer and head of Finance & Retail Solution Business Group at Fujitsu, commented, “We will continue to proactively partner with best-in-class startup companies in order to accelerate digital transformation for not only Japan but for global retail industry.”

Retail customers in Japan may be having their first direct experiences with this Fujitsu-Zippin style of checkout-free markets by about September 2021. This business model is expected to spread rapidly through the coming decade.

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