From satellites to spinach, China's top scientists and engineers furrowed their brows when they drew up and voted on the top 10 list of important breakthroughs in science and technology last year. And similar to previous results, technological accomplishments hold the dominant position, as against scientific discoveries and inventions. High performance computers and nuclear power plants are among the achievements that represent the advance in engineering technology while discoveries or creations in space are the most glaring among the category of scientific advance.
The 10 advances are: the creation of China's fastest high-performance super computer, the first Chinese-made commercial nuclear power plant, the operation of the huge gas pipeline from West to East China, the initiation of China's next-generation Internet, the launch of the second space exploration satellite, the creation of a nanometer-scale switch, the underwater high-precision positioning system, the deciphering of membrane crystal structure of a protein complex, the quantum telecommunication technology, and the oil and gas exploration in the China seas.
The outcome, revealed last week in Beijing, was based on the votes of the 584 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineers (CAE).
The CAS and CAE, best known as the "Twin Academies" in China, are very famous scientific and engineering communities in the country. All the CAS and CAE members were asked to look through progresses in various disciplines over the past year and vote while having a regard of their academic significance and impact.
This annual event is regarded as one of the most authoritative reviews of China's scientific research and technological accomplishments for the previous year.
"Although the voted accomplishments were limited to those made by domestic researchers, they are reviewed and selected by international standards," said Lu Yongxiang, president of the CAS, at a press conference yesterday. "They are internationally advanced in their respective areas."
But he admitted that most of the entries were more closely related to national economy, meeting the needs of people's daily life than exploring the unknown world. He added that this result was in line with China's current status as a developing country.
Topping the list is a new super computer developed by researchers from the CAS Institute of Computing Technology and the Shanghai Supercomputer Centre.
Named Dawning 4000A, the super server is able to perform 10 trillion floating point operations per second (flops). It is ranked 10th internationally, making China the third country in the world, after the United States and Japan, to have developed supercomputers with speeds of over 10 trillion flops.
It is a continuation of the previous year's top 10 advances, which include the Dawning 4000L that is able to perform up to 3 trillion flops.
The formal operation of the first domestically manufactured, commercially operated nuclear power plant in Qinshan of east China's Zhejiang Province stood out second in the ranking. It is regarded by the voters as a great leap from small, non-commercial nuclear facility to a large, commercial operation made in China.
This year's top 10 was particularly highlighted by the accomplishments in the area of energy, said Xu Kuangdi, president of the CAE.
Xu noted that among the final 10 three entries were related to energy. Apart from the nuclear plant, also in the top 10 were the operation of the massive project that transports natural gas from the western end of China 4,000 kilometers eastbound to the coast, and the discovery of oil reserves underneath the seabed under the country's jurisdiction.
"This result reflected Chinese scientists' concern about the country's energy strategy," Xu said.
China has gone through a comprehensive energy shortage over the past couple of years and its dependence on oil importation has been increasing steadily. The discovery of new energy sources has been top on the central government's agenda.
Xu noted that in the three major projects Chinese scientists and engineers had made world-class technological accomplishments that may be of profound significance to China's future strategy.
For instance, the discovery of the oil reserve, which is estimated to be around 40 billion tons, will likely offset the influence of the drying-up oil wells in northeastern China, the major source of domestic oil.
In the area of basic research, the final entries are less outstanding than on the previous year's list. The several eye-catchers in the 2004 list are all about the space.
Chinese research on nano technology continued to produce a great performance and, for three years in a row, appeared in the top 10. Nano technology refers to research and development of new technologies in the nanometre scale space (one nanometre is one-thousandth a micrometre). A team led by Jiang Lei from the Institute of Chemical Science has created a "Nano-switch" that can transform the surface of zinc oxide from being wet resistant to wet-friendly by changing the illuminating light. This creation may prove to be of profound significance in the area of biological research and for the pharmaceutical industry, experts said.
Another major breakthrough in minute space concerns spinach.
Chinese scientists mapped out the structure of a protein complex, LHC-2, that plays a principal role in photosynthesis in green plants.
This breakthrough sheds new light on our understanding of the process of photosynthesis, probably the most important chemical reaction on earth, and paves the way for artificial modelling of photosynthesis and the breeding of plants that will be able to utilize solar energy with great efficiency, experts said.
But this breakthrough, on the other hand, bears out the fact that last year's biological research advances are relatively few compared with the previous year.
Bio-technology has been one of the key areas China has placed huge funds over the past 10 years and hoped to produce world class breakthroughs. And advances in that respect tended to appear in the three or four years, compared to only one in 2004.
Xu ascribed that to the nature of scientific research, saying scientific discovery often takes "quite a long period of time and the results may not come as expected."
"It is no surprise that fewer biological advances appeared on the list of 2004," he said. "The scientists have been working hard over the past year and the implications of their work will manifest in the coming years."
Again, CAS researchers became the biggest winners in the top 10 list. Out of the 10 advances, seven were made by institutes under the CAS which is known as the "national team" of China's scientific research.
Investment from the Chinese Government in scientific research has been tremendously increased over the past few years, with the CAS research institutes being the major beneficiary. Billions of yaun in funds have been invested to support a host of key areas in the hope of making internationally leading accomplishment soon.
(China Daily January 21, 2005)