Champs. Biogeochemist Peter Vitousek (left) and engineer Shun-ichi Iwasaki received this year's Japan Prizes for work with a practical impact.

Dennis Normile

Japan Prize Honors Impacts on Society

TOKYO--Thanks to new selection criteria that emphasize research breakthroughs with a practical impact, this year's Japan Prize is being awarded to an engineer whose work is advancing the digital age and a biologist with a strong environmental conscience. The accolade is one of the world's most lucrative.

The engineer, Shun-ichi Iwasaki, won the prize in the industrial production and production technology category. Currently the director of the Tohoku Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Iwasaki has a long history of breakthroughs in magnetic recording techniques. His biggest, however, is the discovery of a way of arranging the magnetic elements on hard disk drives so that they are perpendicular to the substrate, instead of parallel. This promises to more than triple the data storage density on hard disk drives. By one industry projection, nearly all of the more than 500 million harddisk drives likely to be manufactured in 2010 will use this approach. At a press conference here today, Iwasaki, said his "old school" thinking led him to pass up a patent on the technique. "I was at a national university, using national money; I didn't think I should emphasize private interests," he said.

Peter Vitousek, an ecologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, won the award in the biological production and environment category for his contributions to biogeochemistry. His studies have demonstrated how the use--and overuse--of fertilizer has changed the balance of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment. "[It's] damaging many of the species and ecosystems with whom we share the world," he said at the press conference. Vitousek added that the use of fertilizer is necessary to feed the world, but he noted that less than half of the nitrogen applied actually gets incorporated into crops. The rest is "wasted and damaging." The first step toward limiting the damage is finding ways to use fertilizer more efficiently, Vitousek said.

The prize is administered by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan. Each winner will receive a certificate, a commemorative gold medal, and $550,000 at an April award ceremony.