Issue Date: May 23, 2011
Moments before the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan on March 11, a smaller tremor led members of Tohoku University chemistry professor Hiromi Tobita’s group to evacuate their eighth-floor laboratory. Earthquakes being fairly common in Japan, Tobita didn’t think much of it. Then, with everyone in the hallway, the big one hit.
Eighty miles east of the earthquake epicenter, the swaying building felt like a roller coaster, Tobita says. “It was impossible to keep standing without holding a wall or other thing,” he adds. “The electricity stopped and the hallway became dark. The smell of chemicals and dust started to fill the hallway,” making it hard to breathe as glassware and instruments crashed to the floor and cabinets and fume hoods tore from the walls. Tobita heard hissing coming from an instrument room—a hydrogen gas cylinder for gas chromatography had fallen to the floor and was leaking. He managed to shut the door but couldn’t move from the area.
The shaking lasted for more than five minutes. As it slowed, Tobita and the others on the floor checked in with each other, closed the lab doors, and escaped down the stairs—fairly calmly, Tobita says, crediting habit instilled by annual drills. Partway down, the scientists felt another quake.
Everyone from the building assembled outside and the department did a roll call. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. “Soon, it started to snow,” Tobita says. “We allowed all the students to go home.” Faculty and staff went home later, after going back into the building to assess the damage.
Similar scenes played out in other universities and research facilities across Japan that day in March. How much damage was done depended largely on location, with some facilities facing many months of repairs. Elsewhere, infrastructure damage delayed the start of classes, and continuing electricity shortages are hindering research activities. And the sheer scope of the damage across Japan—including the need to rebuild or repair housing and roads—means that when universities and other institutions will get manpower, parts, and money is an open question.
Tohoku University’s five campuses in Sendai are all far enough inland that they were spared the tsunami that followed the earthquake. The disaster nevertheless left all of Sendai without water or power, and food and gasoline were in short supply for several weeks. The earthquake damaged roads and railways, and the tsunami flooded the airport. Services in the area have gradually been restored in the weeks since the earthquake.
Tohoku University’s main chemistry building, located on the Aobayama campus and the home of Tobita’s lab, is structurally intact. But many of the labs inside were destroyed by the earthquake. Damage to instruments was widespread and included all of the department’s nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers (NMRs). The university has had to bring in specialists to handle the cleanup of hazardous materials and heavy items, says department chair Akihiro Morita.
The university is paying for building repairs so far, but it’s unclear who will pay for repairing equipment or replacing supplies. In the past, the Japanese government has covered earthquake damage, but Morita isn’t sure what will happen with the country facing such a massive rebuilding effort.
For his part, Tobita says his research on air- and moisture-sensitive transition-metal complexes is severely hampered. All of his fume hoods, benches, Schlenk lines, and glove boxes need to be repaired or replaced, along with refrigerators and shelving for chemicals and books. Tobita anticipates that it will take at least six to 12 months to get the lab back up and running. In the meantime, his group will try to take advantage of empty labs elsewhere at the university. Tobita hopes to occupy these labs by the end of May, but the researchers won’t have all the equipment they need and will have to modify projects.
Lower down in the building, on the fourth floor, professor Masahiro Hirama’s lab came through the earthquake better than Tobita’s did. With electricity, water, and telephones now working, Hirama’s group could resume its work on natural product synthesis, he says. But loss of the NMRs has left the researchers without a critical analysis tool for at least six months, Hirama says. In the interim, he is sending four students to work in Osaka University chemistry professor Nobuo Kato’s lab and three students to the Japanese research institute RIKEN’s Wako facility near Tokyo.
At Tohoku’s Amamiya campus, the lab of bioorganic chemistry professor Keiichi Konoki was also minimally damaged. His five-story university apartment building, however, did not fare as well. When he finally got home after the earthquake, “I immediately found there was cracking on the ground around the edge of the building,” he tells C&EN. “I also noticed that the building was not standing straight.”
Konoki stayed in a shelter in Sendai for seven days with his wife and daughter before evacuating to Tokyo to stay with family. Konoki returned to Sendai by himself on March 25 and has been living in the damaged building—yellow-tagged for “caution”—while waiting for another apartment to become available.
And although Konoki’s lab was not seriously damaged, his research into the modes of action of natural marine toxins has nonetheless been affected by the earthquake: A week without electricity meant that cell cultures stored in his –80 °C freezer thawed and must be replaced. He was able to order replacements from RIKEN, which supplied them for free, but he had to wait to get them until transportation systems were repaired. Two months after the earthquake, he is finally resuming experiments.
The Japanese academic year runs April to March, and the university was between sessions when the earthquake hit. The chemistry department’s teaching labs and classrooms on the Aobayama campus are in a separate, shorter building, Morita says, and were not damaged. Most classes at Tohoku began on May 9, several weeks later than normal. The university plans to shorten the summer vacation period to compensate for the lost time.
South of Sendai, universities in the city of Fukushima suffered far less damage, researchers there say. Utilities such as electricity and water also recovered more quickly—electricity was back the day after the earthquake, says Nobukazu Taniguchi, a chemistry professor at Fukushima Medical University. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to get food and gasoline for several weeks, Taniguchi says, and public transportation was paralyzed. For those reasons, his university also delayed starting classes until May 9. The school’s summer vacation will be shortened to make up for the lost class time. Taniguchi’s lab was operational within a couple of weeks of the earthquake.
At the University of Tsukuba, some laboratory equipment was damaged, says spokesman Satoshi Kinouchi. Biological samples were lost either because of equipment damage or because they thawed in the subsequent power outage. Most significantly, the university’s ion beam accelerator, which is used for nuclear physics research as well as mass spectrometry experiments, sustained enough damage that it must be replaced.
The university started classes as planned on April 1, and Kinouchi says that research activities in the College of Chemistry were close to normal by the end of April. The university is anticipating power shortages this summer, however, and may cancel energy-intensive experiments, such as those involving its supercomputing systems, or run them at night. Demand for electricity peaks in July and August when air-conditioning use is high in Japan, and the government has cautioned that there likely will be power shortages.
The University of Tokyo also generally suffered minimal damage from the earthquake, says university spokeswoman Yoko Takemoto. The exception is its International Coastal Research Center, located on the coast north of Sendai, which was flooded by the tsunami. Almost all of the center’s research facilities are unusable, Takemoto says, and there is no timetable yet for recovery.
Most of the Tokyo campus started classes in early April as in a normal year, but operations haven’t entirely been business as usual: The university is severely hampered by continuing electricity shortages, Takemoto says. The school is trying to preserve electricity for teaching and research by turning off things such as air conditioners and printers and reducing lighting. The university’s Environmental Science Center has also restricted recovery and treatment of hazardous waste, including that generated by teaching and research laboratories, as part of the effort to conserve energy. The center hopes to return to normal operation in June, Takemoto says.
Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology (AIST) has several sites around the country. The only two that suffered significant effects from the earthquake were its Tohoku facility, which develops chemical processing technologies in Sendai, and its Tsukuba site, a center of multidisciplinary research and the location of AIST headquarters.
Buildings at both sites largely survived the earthquake intact. Instruments at both sites were damaged, however, including an NMR, a transmission electron microscope, and a mass spectrometer, says spokesman Masaki Shimomura. In Tsukuba, fume hood ducts and air scrubbers also broke in the quake. About 70% of the hoods have now been repaired, and researchers are sharing those until the rest of the repairs can be completed.
The earthquake also damaged the research wastewater piping system that connects laboratories to treatment plants at both Tohoku and Tsukuba. While the system is repaired, sinks cannot be used and wastewater must be collected in tanks, creating a particular hassle for synthetic chemists because the amount of wastewater generated in cleaning glassware, Shimomura says. AIST expects both systems to be repaired by the middle of July.
Damage to a water purification system and limits on clean-room operation because of power shortages are also constraining semiconductor research at Tsukuba. Additional activities such as the use of furnaces might be restricted in the summer, Shimomura says, when electricity will also be needed for air conditioning.
At RIKEN, earthquake effects also depended on location, says spokesman Yasuaki Yutani. At RIKEN’s photonics lab in Sendai, the building is fine, but some equipment was damaged and will take several months to repair, Yutani says. The facility has otherwise been operating normally since utilities were restored at the end of March.
The cyclotron complex at RIKEN’s Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science, located near Tokyo and home to nuclear science experiments, was not damaged by the earthquake, but it did shut down and has slowly been returned to full service, Yutani says. Electricity shortages initially limited RIKEN’s Integrated Cluster of Clusters supercomputer to nighttime operation, but the cluster is now back to normal operation. “There is a possibility that the use of these facilities will have to be curtailed during the summer or fall,” but the power situation is still unclear, Yutani says.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency reports varying degrees of damage to facilities and equipment at its sites near Tokai, northeast of Tokyo, including the Nuclear Science Research Institute, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Engineering Laboratories, and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC). J‑PARC, which has three particle accelerators and produces neutrons for structural studies in material and life sciences, is near the coast but was successfully protected from the tsunami by a 26-foot-high wall.
J-PARC’s accelerators shut down automatically when the earthquake hit, and no one was injured. The facility’s main buildings suffered little damage from the earthquake, Director Shoji Nagamiya says. Surrounding facilities such as power stations, power lines, waterlines, and roads, however, were severely damaged. Also, in the neutron facility, some beam lines extend out into supplementary buildings, which dropped by about one foot. “In total, we have five beam lines out of 16 that were severely damaged” because of such drops, Nagamiya says.
Although repairs to J-PARC may be completed by December, Nagamiya says that it could take a year to get the complex back to full operation. Given the extent of damage in the country, there is a manpower shortage for rebuilding, Nagamiya says, and houses, schools, and transportation infrastructure have higher priority than scientific facilities. Some factories were also damaged or destroyed, so obtaining parts may also be a problem.
The Photon Factory, one of Japan’s synchrotron facilities for X-ray experiments, is located in Tsukuba and also suffered damage from the earthquake. Some of the radio-frequency cavities used to transfer energy to the electron beam moved by about four inches, vacuum seals broke, and a magnet fell out of position. A statement by the facility’s director, Soichi Wakatsuki, says that the Photon Factory hopes to get repairs done to start test operations in June so that it can resume its user program in the fall.
However long earthquake recovery may take, Japanese researchers do not seem daunted by the task. “Throughout this ordeal for our Japanese colleagues, I found them to be resilient and amazingly calm,” says Scripps Research Institute chemistry chair K. C. Nicolaou, who has two former postdocs at Tohoku University and was just starting a collaboration with Konoki when the quake shook Japan. “They are clearly very resourceful and persistent in their efforts to recover from this calamity, a characteristic they exhibited before in their industrial and scientific endeavors.”
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