The streets of east Shinjuku are littered with the tailings of the many small factories and workshops still located there -- hardly one's image of the headquarters of a world-class technology company. But this is where we are first greeted outside Kohei Minato's workshop by Nobue Minato, the wife of the inventor and co-director of the family firm.
The workshop itself is like a Hollywood set of an inventor's garage. Electrical machines, wires, measuring instruments and batteries are strewn everywhere. Along the diagram-covered walls are drill presses, racks of spare coils, Perspex plating and other paraphernalia. And seated in the back, head bowed in thought, is the 58-year-old techno maestro himself.
Minato is no newcomer to the limelight. In fact, he has been an entertainer for most of his life, making music and producing his daughter's singing career in the US. He posseses an oversized presence, with a booming voice and a long ponytail. In short, you can easily imagine him onstage or in a convertible cruising down the coast of California -- not hunched over a mass of wires and coils in Tokyo's cramped backstreets.
Joining us are a middle-aged banker and his entourage from Osaka and accounting and finance consultant Yukio Funai. The banker is doing a quick review for an investment, while the rest of us just want to see if Minato's magnetic motors really work. A prototype car air conditioner cooler sitting on a bench looks like it would fit into a Toyota Corolla and quickly catches our attention.
Seeing is believing
Nobue then takes us through the functions and operations of each of the machines, starting off with a simple explanation of the laws of magnetism and repulsion. She demonstrates the "Minato Wheel" by kicking a magnet-lined rotor into action with a magnetic wand.
Looking carefully at the rotor, we see that it has over 16 magnets embedded on a slant -- apparently to make Minato's machines work, the positioning and angle of the magnets is critical. After she kicks the wheel into life, it keeps spinning, proving at least that the design doesn't suffer from magnetic lockup.
She then moves us to the next device, a weighty machine connected to a tiny battery. Apparently the load on the machine is a 35kg rotor, which could easily be used in a washing machine. After she flicks the switch, the huge rotor spins at over 1,500 rpms effortlessly and silently. Meters show the power in and power out. Suddenly, a power source of 16 watts or so is driving a device that should be drawing at least 200 to 300 watts.
Nobue explains to us that this and all the other devices only use electrical power for the two electromagnetic stators at either side of each rotor, which are used to kick the rotor past its lockup point then on to the next arc of magnets. Apparently the angle and spacing of the magnets is such that once the rotor is moving, repulsion between the stators and the rotor poles keeps the rotor moving smoothly in a counterclockwise direction. Either way, it's impressive.
Next we move to a unit with its motor connected to a generator. What we see is striking. The meters showed an input to the stator electromagnets of approximately 1.8 volts and 150mA input, and from the generator, 9.144 volts and 192mA output. 1.8 x 0.15 x 2 = 540mW input and 9.144 x 0.192 = 1.755W out.
But according to the laws of physics, you can't get more out of a device than you put into it. We mention this to Kohei Minato while looking under the workbench to make sure there aren't any hidden wires.
Minato assures us that he hasn't transcended the laws of physics. The force supplying the unexplained extra power out is generated by the magnetic strength of the permanent magnets embedded in the rotor. "I'm simply harnessing one of the four fundamental forces of nature," he says.
Although we learned in school that magnets were always bipolar and so magnetically induced motion would always end in a locked state of equilibrium, Minato explains that he has fine-tuned the positioning of the magnets and the timing of pulses to the stators to the point where the repulsion between the rotor and the stator (the fixed outer magnetic ring) is transitory. This creates further motion -- rather than a lockup. (See the sidebar on page 41 for a full explanation).
Nobue Minato leads us to the two devices that might convince a potential investor that this is all for real.
First, she shows us the cooling fan prototype that is being manufactured for a convenience store chain's 14,000 outlets (3 fans per outlet). The unit looks almost identical to a Mitsubishi-manufactured fan unit next to it, which is the unit currently in wide use. In a test, the airflow from both units is about the same.
The other unit is the car air conditioning prototype that caught our eye as we came in. It's a prototype for Nippon Denso, Japan's largest manufacturer of car air conditioners. The unit is remarkably compact and has the same contours and size as a conventional unit. Minato's manufacturing skills are clearly improving.
The banker and his investment
Minato has good reason to complain about Japan's social and cultural uniformity. For years, people thought of him as an oddball for playing the piano for a living, and bankers and investors have avoided him because of his habit of claiming that he'd discovered a breakthrough technology all by himself -- without any formal training.
However, the Osaka banker stands up after the lecture and announces that before he goes, he will commit JPY100 million to the investment pool.
Minato turns to us and smiles. We brought him good luck, and this was his third investor in as many weeks to confirm an interest.
Bringing the tech to the table
With the audience gone, we ask Minato what he plans to do to commercialize the technology. His game plan is simple and clear, he says. He wants to retain control, and he wants to commercialize the technology in Japan first -- where he feels he can ensure that things get done right. Why doesn't he go directly to the US or China? His experiences in both countries, he suggests, have been less than successful. "The first stage is critical in terms of creating good products and refining the technology. I don't want to be busy with legal challenges and IP theft while doing that."
Still, the export and licensing of the technology are on his agenda, and Minato is talking to a variety of potential partners in other countries.
Whereas another inventor might be tempted to outsource everything to a larger corporation, part of what drives Minato is his vision of social justice and responsibility. The 40,000 motors for the convenience store chain are being produced by a group of small manufacturers in Ohta-ku and Bunkyo-ku, in the inner north of Tokyo -- which is becoming a regional rust belt. Minato is seized with the vision of reinvigorating these small workshops that until the 80s were the bedrock of Japan's manufacturing and economic miracle. Their level of expertise will ensure that the quality of the motors will be as good as those from any major company.