Research Into Deep-Sea Biodiversity and Chip-Making Processes Earns Japan Prizes

TOKYO—Conventional wisdom held that the deep-seafloor was pretty much bereft of life at the time marine biologist J. Frederick Grassle rode the Alvin submersible to examine newly discovered hydrothermal vents near the Galapagos Islands in 1979. But "I was awestruck at the abundance and diversity of small animals of deep sea sediments," Grassle recalled in a greeting he recorded in accepting one of two Japan Prizes announced today.

Grassle, now at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, won for his pioneering studies of deep-sea biodiversity. The second prize goes to chemists Grant Willson, now of the University of Texas, Austin, and Jean Fréchet of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, for their work developing chemically amplified resists, photosensitive materials that have allowed semiconductor makers to shrink integrated circuits.

Grassle's work ultimately revealed that a diverse community of organisms thrives along deep-sea hydrothermal vents, feasting on organic matter produced by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria instead of photosynthesis. These chemosynthetic ecosystems are now recognized to be just as important to marine biodiversity as the organisms relying on photosynthesis. Grassle solidified his contributions to documenting marine biodiversity by helping launch the Census of Marine Life and the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, which is an essential tool in marine conservation efforts. "This data has proved crucial in preserving and utilizing ocean resources," said Hiroshi Komiyama, a chemical engineer and former president of University of Tokyo who chaired the prize selection committee.

Work done by Willson and Fréchet still underpins the processes producing the microprocessors and memory chips at the heart of everything from personal computers to mobile phones. The research is also, Willson says, an "unusually successful" example of university-industry cooperation. The pair did their original work at the IBM Research - Almaden center in San Jose, where Willson was a research manager and Fréchet a visiting scientist on sabbatical from University of Ottawa.

Both men, present in Tokyo today, also praised the contributions of Hiroshi Ito, who played a key role in developing the new material as an IBM researcher. Unfortunately, Ito passed away in 2009 and the Japan Prize is awarded to only the living.

The trio collaborated even after Fréchet returned to Ottawa and later moved to Cornell University and then the University of California, Berkeley. Fréchet's lab did basic work on the material; the IBM group worked on applications. "Too many academics look at a problem but don't understand all the requirements of an industrial process," Willson said. The new photoresist not only had to be exquisitely sensitive to short wavelength light, but it also had to be stable at high temperatures, resistant to contamination, and reliably adhere to semiconductor substrates. Insufficient understanding of manufacturing requirements "is one of the places where linkage [between industry and academia] fails," Willson said. The issue from an academic standpoint is that companies instinctively keep industrial secrets. "Unless companies open up, academics cannot participate in finding solutions," Fréchet said.

Each Japan Prize category carries a cash award of $550,000, which laureates will receive along with commemorative medals at a ceremony here in April. The Japan Prize categories change each year within broadly defined fields of science and technology. The categories for the 2014 prize are "Electronics, Information and Communication" and "Life Science."