Sumio Iijima Ph.D.

Iijima, Sumio
Position Department / Business Unit
NEC Laboratory
Institution Disciplines
NEC
City State / Provence
Tsukuba
Country Website
Japan
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Sumio Iijima (飯島 澄男 Iijima Sumio, born May 2, 1939) is a Japanese physicist, best known for discovering carbon nanotubes in 1991.

In my youth
I am often asked what I was like when I was a child. Stated very simply, I loved nature. When I was little, I took advantage of every opportunity to come in contact with nature - I collected plants and insects, I fished, and I kept a menagerie of small animals, including pigeons, rabbits, snakes, frogs, and crabs. I learned many things from my experiences with nature, and I believe that this helped me to develop both sensitivity and insight. In high school and university, I was in the mountaineering club and the music club, and spent my youth exploring nature and challenging the limits of my creativity.


First meeting with the electron microscope, and acquisition of a specialty
Upon my graduation from the University of Electro-Communications, Faculty of Communications, instead of going into engineering, I changed directions into the field of science. Although I managed to get into the Graduate School of Physics at Tohoku University, I had come from a different field at a different university and so my laboratory placement was decided immediately after my interview. It just so happened that I was assigned to the laboratory of Professor Tadatoshi Hibi, who was a pioneer in electron microscope research.

It wasn't that I had a particularly strong desire to do research with electron microscopes at the time, but I found that I was perfectly suited to research in this field. After I finished my Ph.D., I spent two years as a Research Associate in the Research Institute for Scientific Measurements at Tohoku University and 12 years as a Research Associate at Arizona State University in the United States. During that time, I developed a new electron microscope that was the first in the world to show the structure of materials at the atomic level. This field that I had dived into head first - the use of electron microscopes to explore physical phenomena and structures of materials at the nanometer level - came to be my specialty.

So it was that my meeting with the electron microscope determined my path in research, but perhaps this meeting was in fact more coincidence than "serendipity." Nevertheless, it is true that the changes in that path, and the fact that I dove into new fields, was a result of my determination to find something, and I believe that there was something working here other than mere coincidence.

In the United States
I spent the years from 1970 to 1982 at Arizona State University in the United States. (In 1979, I stayed in England as a visiting senior scientist at the University of Cambridge.) In a word, one could say that these years represented my "apprenticeship." The most important thing that I learned while in the U.S. was "Don't do what others have done."

As a result of this approach, in 1971, I developed a high-resolution electron microscope and became the first in the world to directly observe metal atoms in the crystal lattice of titanium-niobium oxide. In 1973, I used the same high-resolution electron microscopy to record images of point defects in crystals through resolution at the atomic level. In 1977, I succeeded in the imaging of individual tungsten atoms, and was told that I had achieved the dream held by researchers since the invention of the electron microscope in 1932 - that of actually seeing a single atom.

Why I joined NEC after returning to Japan
I returned to Japan in 1982, and participated in the first research project of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (now JST), developing a new high-resolution electron microscope. Then, in 1984, I discovered the phenomenon of "Structural instability of ultrafine particles of metals," in which the atoms of metals move about like amoeba. For the five years after my return to Japan, from 1982 to 1987, I devoted my efforts mainly to research in ultrafine particles.

I entered NEC after this period, in 1987. About the time when I was thinking that I wanted to develop a new high-resolution electron microscope that could operate in an extremely high vacuum, NEC expressed a similar interest in the development of such an electron microscope. I thus began my first experience as a company employee at the age of 48. Another reason that I dove into fundamental research in a company was that electronics laboratories have unique materials produced using expensive equipment that cannot be made in universities, and I was sure that these materials would become the basis for exceptional research results using electron microscopes. The third reason was that I wanted to test my own abilities - I thought to myself, there is no reason why I can't conduct fundamental research even in a company laboratory. This was because I believe that when laboratories at universities and companies compete in basic research and grow stronger through this friendly rivalry, the result will be that fundamental research will provide support for a wide range of researchers - the healthiest pattern for the research field. Of course, all this has to take place within the scope that the economic environment will allow. I liked NEC's management policy, which was based on the approach of "broad proliferation of science and technologies, and the creation of new value," and of "giving back to society."

It took about two years after I entered NEC, but I was finally able to achieve my goal of undertaking world-leading development of microscopes. Looking back on it now, the first paper I wrote after joining NEC was about C60. I really feel that there was a connection there.

The "Friday Evening Discourse">> What is the Friday Evening Discourse?
Friday Evening DiscourseEven after discovering carbon nanotubes, my own lifestyle and style of research didn't change in any particular way. If I had to say something, I'd say it was that I became so busy that I had very little time for myself. I really believe (at least I'd like to believe) that my directions in research and my curiosity about things in general, are the same now as they ever were.

One exception, perhaps, is the presentation that I made in May 1997 at the Friday Evening Discourse, which is held by the Royal Institution in England. I have given many presentations in the past, but this one in particular remains with me as a very valuable experience that impressed upon me the tradition of sciences in England.

The discourse has no prologue or introductions; it begins promptly at 8:00 p.m. with the sound of a bell. The bell rings once more an hour later, and the discourse must then be ended just as promptly, even if the speaker has not yet completed the presentation. This is the traditional style of the Friday Evening Discourse. In my case, I completed my presentation three seconds ahead of time, and the bell rang just as I was taking a breath after finishing. The timing was worthy of being written up in the Guinness Book, and everyone in attendance responded enthusiastically.

During my discourse, I made the following comment: "When I am asked about the practical value of carbon nanotubes, I respond with the same reply that the great English scientist Michael Faraday gave to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the Minister of Finance at the time): 'One day, Sir, you may tax it.'" This comment also won a rousing response. I used this metaphor to make the point that carbon nanotubes offer so many merits that one day there may be a tax levied on their use, but I think perhaps the idea is even more appropriate now than it ever was.

To the younger generation
I often use the word "Serendipity," because I believe that in order for coincidences to happen, the process leading up to it is very important. The ability to see things correctly is nurtured through day-to-day observation. When I see so many stories in the news recently about violent crimes, I can't help but think that as children, these people were never trained to think for themselves and to act correctly. "Excessive service" is rampant in Japan today. For example, consider the announcements you hear on the train platforms. This is a very helpful announcement, which tells us, "For your safety, please wait behind the white line." But really, the passengers should be able to make this judgment for themselves. If we are raised in a world where someone will always give us the answer even if we don't think for ourselves, then we will never learn the skills required to live independently. If children in modern Japan were made to participate in a "survival game," I doubt very much that even one would remain standing at the end. This is the responsibility of the adults in our society. I would like to see more people coming in contact with nature, and living their lives thinking for themselves, and acting accordingly.

I think that one of the reasons for the warnings we have heard in past years that Japan is "losing its connections with science" is a lack of sensitivity and observation skills, which are learned through contact with nature. Research can be undertaken in any kind of environment, as long as you have the interest. I believe that true education means fostering the ability to be interested in something.

To people wishing to become involved in the sciences
I mentioned earlier that the key lies in "not doing what others have done," but "doing what others have not done" demands a great deal of motivation. Where does this motivation originate? This is a difficult question. Perhaps it is the training to see things with a broad perspective, and see through to the truth. We have a limited time to work with, so we want to find a research theme that will have impact. You may think it is difficult to continue fundamental research in a company, which must emphasize profits. In practical terms, the key lies in whether the researcher has the ability to see what lies ahead, and whether that researcher's manager is able to see the value in that future. Of course, if that seed stays a seed, never bearing fruit, then one must have the courage to quit as well. This can be extremely difficult, however, if a large amount of money has already been invested in that research.

I would like to ask the young people in Japan to strive for research results that Japan can be proud of, regardless of whether you are doing research in a company, a university, or some other research environment. Without this pride, when we take our place on the global stage, we cannot ever feel totally relaxed. You must have the confidence to be able to say, "I am creating Japanese culture." For example, I believe that research and fabrication technologies using electron microscopes - my own specialty - are something we can be proud to offer to the world. I urge you to go out and create sciences and technologies that you can be proud of presenting on a global stage.

Career Highlights

Sumio Iijima (飯島 澄男 Iijima Sumio, born May 2, 1939) is a Japanese physicist, best known for discovering carbon nanotubes in 1991.

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1939, Iijima graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1963 from the University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo. He received a Master's degree in 1965 and completed his Ph.D. in solid-state physics in 1968, both at Tohoku University in Sendai.

Between 1970 and 1982 he performed research with crystalline materials and high-resolution electron microscopy at Arizona State University. He visited the University of Cambridge during 1979 to perform studies on carbon materials.

He worked for the Research Development Corporation of Japan from 1982 to 1987, studying ultra-fine particles, after which he joined NEC Corporation where he is still employed. He discovered carbon nanotubes in 1991 while working with NEC. He is also a professor at Meijo University since 1999. Furthermore, he is the director of the Research Center for Advanced Carbon Materials, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.


Awards

He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics in 2002, "for the discovery and elucidation of the atomic structure and helical character of multi-wall and single-wall carbon nanotubes, which have had an enormous impact on the rapidly growing condensed matter and materials science field of nanoscale science and electronics."

Books

References

1) Biography
2) List of papers (PDF file)
3) "The Challenge of Carbon Nanotubes"; Iijima, S., Iwanami Shoten, Published Jan. 1999 (in Japanese)
4) National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) Homepage (explanation of carbon nanotubes; in Japanese)
5) Tsukuba Symposium on Carbon Nanotube

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