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Recovery Leads to Innovation

Business owners in northeast Japan were hit hard following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Employees at one boiler making company in the city of Kamaishi saw plenty of adversity in the months after. But they've been able to turn things around by taking some innovative steps.

Kazutoshi Nogami is the head of technology for a boiler manufacturer in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

It's a small company with about 10 employees. City officials asked Nogami and his colleagues to help process debris from the disaster. So the firm developed a boiler for generating electricity.

The tsunami deposited close to 1 million tons of debris in Kamaishi -- that's equal to about 55 years' worth of household garbage for the city. It was a major obstacle to recovery.

Nogami developed a way to use the mountains of rubble to fuel his boiler. The resulting water vapor would produce electricity.

"I focused on using debris as fuel. I really believe it was the disaster that forced me to think outside the box."
Kazutoshi Nogami / General Manager, Bio System Technology

Most of the tsunami debris had absorbed large amounts of salt from soaking up sea water.

The salt reacts with the metal walls of the boilers when the debris is burned. This causes corrosion. Nogami had his work cut out for him.

It took him three years to develop a unit that can handle such damage, and in 2014, his product was ready.

Conventional boilers take the form of a single tube. Nogami decided to divide the unit into three parts. This would allow workers to easily replace any section damaged by corrosion. His boiler can be repaired in half the time it normally takes.

He also redesigned the inside of the boiler so combustion efficiency doesn't decline.

"We found ourselves in an extreme state of having nothing. But that situation was exactly what motivated us. I believe that was the key to our innovation."
Kazutoshi Nogami / General Manager, Bio System Technology

This new technology is creating a buzz in Indonesia. Palm oil producers were looking for a way to get rid of the husk left behind in the production process. Indonesia is a major exporter of palm oil.

The industry generates about 200 tons of waste a day. And it contains salt, just like Japanese tsunami rubble. So incineration using boilers was impractical.

Indonesian officials hope Nogami's technology will help the industry dispose of the palm husks more easily.

"This boiler will help solve our country's problem. We hope it's the breakthrough we were looking for."
Erlan Rosyadi / Senior Researcher of Renewable Energy Division

Government officials are considering Nogami's proposal. If they strike a deal, it could be big. The business would be worth about 1.2 billion dollars.

"We can go global by honing our debris-related technology. Looking back, we can say the disaster presented us with a chance to improve our products."
Kazutoshi Nogami / General Manager, Bio System Technology

The operators of tsunami-affected companies are finding ways to turn difficulties into new business opportunities.

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