Fuel cells which react to hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere and generate power can produce electricity without emitting harmful substances like greenhouse gasses. For this reason, they can be considered indispensable to the building of a decarbonized society. However, because catalysts of the cathodes that react to oxygen use the rare metal platinum, the cost is expensive and they are not becoming more popularized. Research is also progressing with catalysts that don't use platinum, but it has been found that few materials surpass platinum.
Hiroya Abe, an assistant professor at the Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences at Tohoku University, focused on the power of hemoglobin in the blood to bind with oxygen, and synthesized, out of the inexpensive materials of blue pigment metal complex and carbon material, a biomimetic catalyst which has a similar construction to hemoglobin in activity. He demonstrated that it surpasses platinum catalysts and exhibits the highest performance in the world. In 2023, he designed and developed microbial fuel cells loaded with this biomimetic catalyst, and effectuated their capacity to generate more power than fuel cells that use platinum catalysts. The biomimetic catalyst that Abe developed doesn't use costly platinum Since it can be synthesized in a simple and mass producible method called the solution process, it is drawing attention as a technology tied to the price reduction of fuel cells.
The basis of Abe's research are these ways of thinking: "learn about biology," "learn from biology," and "surpass biology." Just like how he developed catalysts for fuel cells from the idea of hemoglobin in the blood, Abe is engaging in research that takes inspiration from the superior composition and functions of organisms which can be used in science and technology. For instance, inspired by mussels' characteristic ability to adhere to various bedrock, he has developed an adhesive using the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as water-repelling and hydrophilic materials imitating the minute porous structures of organisms. Abe aims to establish "Bio-inspired Engineering" based on this idea.
While engaging in research at Tohoku University, Abe jointly founded AZUL Energy in July 2019 and works as company director there, aiming to grow and produce the biomimetic catalysts for the fuel cells he invented. AZUL Energy has already raised 300 million yen in funding and is advancing steadily in research and development towards the implementation of biomimetic catalysts on a commercial scale, including in 2021 entering a capital and business alliance with Italy's De Nora which develops water electrolysis systems for hydrogen production.