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Famed Inventor Seeks to Dispel Belief That Japanese Are Copiers, Not Innovators

January 31, 1988|ELAINE KURTENBACH | Associated Press

SENDAI, Japan — In a drafty laboratory with black vinyl covering broken windows, the man regarded as Japan's foremost electronics wizard goes about inventing things--and scuttling the idea that Japanese are copiers rather than innovators.

Indeed, Dr. Jun-ichi Nishizawa looks more like a baker in his lab coat and baggy white cap than he does the scientific pioneer who has earned more than 400 patents for himself and his Semiconductor Research Institute in Sendai.

Among other things, Nishizawa has developed the fundamental technology for channeling electricity to the "bullet trains" that whiz around Japan at more than 125 m.p.h.

He also has found a way to make traffic lights visible against the brightest sunlight. He has developed a computerized piano tuner, immensely more powerful stereo amplifiers and optical telecommunications through computers.

"Hard thinking" helps him come up with such exotic devices as electroluminescent diodes--the brightest, most energy-efficient lights in the world--and the thyristor, a gadget that conducts electrical power, the 62-year-old Nishizawa says.

He says his inventions demonstrate that the Japanese, if given a chance, can be original and creative.

"Some people say Japanese universities just import new ideas, but that's not entirely true," he said in fluent, self-taught English.

His main goal is to develop the most powerful energy- and space-efficient devices possible.

His PIN (positive-intrinsic-negative) diode, which converts alternating current into direct current, and several similar devices are more than 99% energy efficient, in contrast to a 30% efficiency rating for automobiles, he said.

Most of these inventions rely on the ability to transform AC into DC, and DC into AC, making it possible to safely send a very powerful electrical current long distances with little energy loss, he explained in an interview.

For more than 30 years, Nishizawa has competed with foreign and Japanese researchers to patent his gadgets, which form the basis of modern electronic technology. He was 18 days ahead of General Electric in applying on Sept. 11, 1950, for a patent for the PIN diode, he said.

In 1966, Nishizawa and the late Dr. Yasushi Watanabe received Japan's Imperial Invention Prize for developing the power rectifiers that have been used to channel electrical currents to bullet trains.

These devices enabled engineers to reduce the size of bullet-train engines so that they require smaller mountain tunnels.

Shuttling weekly between his home in northern Japan and corporate and scientific colleagues in Tokyo, Nishizawa is a renegade by Japanese standards.

Nishizawa and Watanabe left university teaching to found the Semiconductor Research Institute in Sendai in May, 1961, two years after they invented fundamental technology for semiconductors.

In 1984, a team working under Nishizawa developed gallium arsenide crystals, the material used in semiconductors that fostered a new generation of computers able to calculate at speeds 100 times faster than conventional models.

Nishizawa disdains the tendency of Japanese researchers to specialize in one field, usually under the direction of a professor, which he contends limits creativity.

"I studied electrical engineering in college, but I love physics, too," he said. "My father was a chemistry professor. . . . All the sciences have influenced my work."

In 1983, Nishizawa received the Jack A. Morton Award, an American honor regarded as the Nobel Prize of electronic engineering.

Nishizawa says foreign firms have been his best customers--somewhat to his disadvantage. Many of his most important finds are generally considered U.S. inventions because they were developed for industrial use outside Japan, he says.

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