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A superefficient supercomputer and sensors that run on radio waves are just some of the latest energy-friendly technologies coming out of Japan.

The government-backed Riken research center in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, is home to Shoubu, a supercomputer recently designated by US university researchers as the world’s most energy-efficient.

Shoubu was developed in only one year by 23 engineers at Japanese venture companies Pezy Computing and ExaScaler.

Supercomputers are increasingly used in such areas as weather forecasting and automobile development. But they will not become more widely adopted unless their “energy restrictions” are resolved, according to Pezy President Motoaki Saito.

PALM-SIZE POWERHOUSE
The K supercomputer, which was jointly developed by Riken and Fujitsu and became the world’s fastest in 2011, consumes as much electricity as 30,000 households.

Shoubu’s processing capacity is one-fifth that of the K’s, but its energy consumption is one-two hundred and fiftieth.

This efficiency comes from advanced cooling technology and the unique circuit structure used for Shoubu’s central processing unit. Its numerous cables are housed in five fluid-filled boxes, each about the size of a washing machine.

The developers aim to devise a palm-size supercomputer that is faster and more energy-efficient than Shoubu within a decade.

Adam Smith, known as the father of economics, once noted that land restrictions hamper economic development. Just as pressing for today’s more affluent world, however, is the problem of energy restrictions.

Energy consumption has soared 240% over the past 50 years, and more than 1 billion people are expected to join the ranks of middle-income earners, meaning they will be able to purchase cars, air conditioners, and other energy-hungry amenities.

One of the most urgent questions the world is facing is how to deal with this swelling demand for energy.

In Australia, which leads the world in terms of household solar power use, Panasonic has begun a joint experiment with a local power retailer to send surplus electricity generated during the day to grids for use at night.

The amount of power generated from natural energy sources, such as sunlight and wind, varies greatly depending on weather conditions.

Connecting electricity from unstable sources to grids is a technological challenge.

The experiment by Panasonic is aimed at establishing the technology and know-how for the efficient, community-wide use of solar power using “smart” storage batteries installed in homes.

Yoshihiro Kawahara, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of information science and technology, in 2011 succeeded in operating a sensor using a tiny amount of electricity collected from radio waves transmitted via the Tokyo Tower telecommunications tower.

COZIER HOMES

In January, Kawahara established a venture business called SenSprout to commercially produce sensors powered by this unexpected energy source.

Initially, the company plans to offer sensors to measure the amount of water in soil. Collected data will be sent wirelessly to a computer for analysis to help water land and crops more efficiently.

“We would like to sell our sensors in the U.S., India and other countries struggling to secure water for agriculture,” Kawahara said.

Nobuyuki Mizukawa, head of a nonprofit advisory for wooden homes in Yamaguchi Prefecture, has developed a heat-insulating material that is several dozen times more heat-retaining than conventional products.

The material is made by crushing cedar and bamboo and processing it into a cotton-like material. This material helps maintain room temperatures after heaters are turned off, thereby reducing the use of energy in the winter.

With forests accounting for more than 70 percent of the land in Yamaguchi, the prefectural government hopes the new material will help revitalize local industry.

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