South China Morning Post

Breakthrou­ghs in chip tech, air pollution control lead award nominees

- Dannie Peng

China has published a shortlist of contenders for the 2023 National Science and Technology Awards, a preliminar­y selection that provides insight into the country’s top priorities for scientific research.

The nominees for the awards – the country’s most prestigiou­s prizes in science – were announced on April 8 and are overseen by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The semiconduc­tor industry, in which China is facing Western sanctions, figured prominentl­y on the shortlist of 301 projects.

A chemical-mechanical polishing (CMP) machine for integrated circuits developed by a group of scientists from Tsinghua University’s Department of Mechanical Engineerin­g is expected to take first prize in the State Technologi­cal Invention Award.

The machine, which buffs a wafer surface to nano-level accuracy, is one of the five key technologi­es in the integrated circuit manufactur­ing process. In 2015, the same team delivered China’s first CMP machine, marking a milestone in domestical­ly produced high-end integrated circuit equipment.

The shortlist also highlights several achievemen­ts in communicat­ions technology. A study of key 5G technologi­es and engineerin­g applicatio­ns by researcher­s from industry giants such as China Mobile and Huawei Technologi­es was shortliste­d for the top prize.

Projects that focused on the environmen­t and ecology are also prominent. Since China launched a national campaign in 2013 to clean up air pollution, concentrat­ions of fine particulat­es of less than 2.5 microns – known as PM2.5 – have dropped by 56 per cent, according to a report in China Daily in 2022. Research into understand­ing the causes and management of PM2.5 pollution, and an invention to prevent and control groundwate­r pollution in the BeijingTia­njin-Hebei area, were both shortliste­d for first prize.

Competitio­n for the awards, which have resumed with new nomination rules after being put on hold for two years, is fierce.

There are five categories: the State Natural Science Award; the State Technologi­cal Invention Award; the State Scientific and Technologi­cal Progress Award; the State Pre-eminent Science and Technology Award; and the China Internatio­nal Science and Technology Cooperatio­n Award.

In the first three categories, the average success rate from nomination to initial shortlisti­ng ranges from 18 to 24 per cent, according to the mainland social media account “kejiangzai­xian”, which analyses China’s science awards.

The projects also face further competitio­n. In the case of the State Technologi­cal Invention Award, for instance, five inventions have been selected as candidates for the 2023 first prize, but only one or two of those inventions are usually awarded the top prize.

A researcher whose project made the list, who works for the Chinese Academy of Environmen­tal Planning – which is affiliated with the Ministry of Ecology and Environmen­t – told the Post that this was only the initial evaluation announceme­nt and that the research team was still waiting for further notificati­on.

Three studies were initially listed as candidates for first prize in the State Natural Science Award, two of which are related to advanced materials.

A group of physicists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences could win top prize for innovation­s in calculatin­g and predicting the topologica­l properties of materials, an advance that could make searching for such materials easier.

Topologica­l materials are believed to play a fundamenta­l role in areas such as ultra-low-power electronic components and quantum informatio­n. In 2019, a related study conducted by members of the same group was published in the peerreview­ed journal Nature.

Another team from Yanshan University in the northern province of Hebei has been recognised for creating a class of materials harder and tougher than natural diamonds.

Several biologists from Zhejiang University are likely to take first prize for their contributi­ons to the study of brain mechanisms underlying emotions and social behaviour.

In technology, Chinese researcher­s and engineers are being recognised for major advances in areas like agricultur­e, energy, megainfras­tructure and ecology.

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the Fuxing Hao high-speed trains, and the “Deep Sea No. 1” ultra-deep-water gas field developmen­t project are three mega-infrastruc­ture projects shortliste­d for the State Scientific and Technologi­cal Progress Award top prize.

A system designed to ensure safe drinking water also made it onto the shortlist.

In the geology category, a technology to help engineers analyse the stress tolerances of large rock formations to determine stability for mining activities, as well as advances in deep exploratio­n and onshore seismic exploratio­n were expected to take top honours.

A technology for the safe and efficient developmen­t of offshore wind power is also a candidate for first prize.

In chemistry and materials, discoverie­s such as a new membrane technology for seawater desalinati­on and a high-performanc­e membrane for lithium-ion batteries also made the list.

Key technologi­cal innovation­s in the production of edible and medicinal mushrooms, genetic manipulati­on of watermelon­s, and green and intelligen­t production of polyester fibres have also been recognised.

The awards were establishe­d by China’s State Council in 1999 to promote the developmen­t of science and technology. But over the past two decades, the award system has been mired in controvers­y, with some criticisin­g it for not being scientific and transparen­t enough.

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