Successfully surveyed at a depth of 8,000 meters! A project that brought together a downtown factory, a university, a research institute, and a credit union
On August 1, China imposed export controls on the rare metals gallium and germanium. Rare metals are indispensable for semiconductors, LEDs, and solar cells. It would be worrisome if we had to rely on China forever.
The Strategic Innovation Program (SIP), which began in 2002, entered its third phase this year. Deep-sea monitoring is being conducted to extract rare earths, and we have been participating in this project since its first phase.
says Hiroshi Takahashi, an advisor to Okamoto Glass, a specialty glass manufacturer based in Kashiwa City, Chiba Prefecture.
The SIP has been led by the national government, but in the third phase, the project has been outsourced to the private sector. Accordingly, in April of this year, Okamoto Glass established “Next Generation Ocean Research Corporation” as a joint venture with Idea Corporation, Fukada Salvage Construction Company, Petroleum Resources Development Corporation, and Dia Consultant Co.
In order to mine rare earths, surveys must be conducted before and after mining to ensure that no major changes are made to the environment, and this is where the core company, Okamoto Glass, is playing an active role with its unmanned deep-sea probe, Edokko-1.
In this system, a “communication device,” “floating circuit device,” “lighting device,” and “filming device” are placed inside four glass spheres, each of which is submerged in deep water. Currently, four series have been produced, including the “Edokko No. 1 365 type,” which can take photographs 365 days a year at a depth of 8,000m. Okamoto Glass was involved in the development of the glass sphere, and Mr. Takahashi played a central role.
The environmental survey method used in the “Edokko No. 1” became an international standard of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). There is a possibility that it will be used all over the world in the future. We believe it will help in the development of marine resources.
The process is the same as that used to be used to make mercury lamp glass covers for expressways.
The “Edokko No. 1 Project” was launched in 2009. The project started in 2009, when “Maido No. 1,” a satellite developed by a small- to medium-sized company in Higashiosaka City, was launched by an H2A rocket No. 15 from the Tanegashima Space Center. The project was initiated by Yukio Sugino, president of Sugino Rubber & Chemical Industries in Katsushika-ku, Osaka, who asked local factories in the area to join him in the project.
He had big dreams for the project, such as “I want to make a robot that can move around on the seafloor,” but the presidents of the factories had almost no knowledge of the deep sea. After attending lectures at research institutes and universities that were willing to cooperate with the project, they finally decided on the shape of a glass sphere connected together in 2012. They were approached by Okamoto Glass because it was the only company that could make glass spheres that could withstand the water pressure of the deep sea.
However, the company was founded in 1928. Why does Okamoto Glass, a manufacturer of glass products and processed products used for machine parts such as reflectors for projectors, fly-eye lenses, and dental mirrors for medical use, make glass bulbs?
In the past, we used to make glass covers for mercury lamps on highways, which were hemispherical in shape. The shape is different, but the production process is the same.
Mr. Takahashi says casually, “In the sea, one atmospheric pressure is applied for every 10m of dive. In order to withstand water pressure as much as possible, the glass sphere must be made as close to a sphere as possible.
Currently, only a German company makes such a glass sphere. We ordered a product from there and examined it,
We found that there were weak points in the glass spheres that could not be made into true spheres, so we reinforced those weak points. So we reinforced the weak parts.
But that was not the hard part.
The glass spheres are made to fit together, and if there is even a small gap between the two hemispheres, they will break. We had to find the smoothest way to finish this part. A machine would inevitably leave gaps, so we had to have the glass balls finished by hand by a polisher.
As a result, the gap was reduced from 58 microns in the German-made glass ball to 2 to 3 microns. Japanese craftsmanship has not yet been abandoned.
I would like to say that we are the world’s leading maritime nation, but the truth is…”
Nevertheless, this is a completely different world from the work I have done in the past. I wonder if you were at all puzzled when you were approached.
No, it’s Okamoto’sism to take on something that looks interesting, even if it seems daunting,” said Okamoto, president of Okamoto Glass.
says Yoshihiro Hori, president of Okamoto Glass Co.
In the past, car headlamps and traffic signals were made of glass, and there are many glass products such as vacuum tubes and cathode ray tubes whose components themselves have disappeared.
We make what is needed by the times. That has always been the case, and it will always be the case,” says Hori.
For Okamoto Glass, the challenge of going into the deep sea may also be a way of looking ahead to the future.
In the past, it has been used to observe the spawning behavior of eels and successfully filmed it for the first time, to investigate deep-sea organisms in the Mariana Trench, and to observe earthquakes, among other one-off uses, but now it will be used for full-scale, systematic oceanographic research.
It is already estimated that Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) contains 12.6 trillion m3 of methane hydrate, enough natural gas for 100 years of Japanese consumption, and hydrothermal deposits containing large amounts of rare earths are believed to exist in the waters around Okinawa and other areas. Prime Minister Kishida’s “New Capitalism” action plan calls for the development of unmanned ocean observation systems.
The offshore business is a completely new world for us. I feel romantic about being able to participate in a project of great national importance.
However, although we would like to say that we are a world-class marine nation, in reality, the industry in the deep sea is still in its infancy. We are working very hard to make the knowledge and technology gained through research and development useful in society. We would also like to expand overseas,” said Mr. Hori.
I would like to contribute to the national project of mining domestically produced resources for the people of Japan. We want to contribute to such a national project.
Mr. Takahashi is also enthusiastic.
Japan has the world’s sixth largest EEZ in terms of area. Incidentally, Japan has the world’s fourth largest EEZ in terms of volume. China is making serious efforts to develop the resources lying dormant there. Japan cannot afford to lose.
Interview and text by： Izumi Nakagawa