grant willson illustrated

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) will bestow University of Texas at Austin professor C. Grant Willson with the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering —  widely regarded as the highest honor in the profession — for his pioneering work enabling the extreme miniaturization of microelectronic devices.

Willson, who holds the Rashid Engineering Regents Chair in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and a faculty position in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences, is one of two recipients of this year’s Draper Prize.

Willson and Jean Fréchet, a world expert in polymers who retired last year after serving as the senior vice president for research, innovation and economic development at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), will receive the honor in recognition of their significant roles in the invention, development and commercialization of chemically amplified materials for micro- and nanofabrication.

The chemically amplified resist (CAR) materials created by Willson and Fréchet are used in lithography to form the minute structures that make up today's semiconductor devices. These materials are now used to manufacture nearly all of the microprocessors and memory chips that enable electronic devices such as personal computers, mobile phones and motor vehicles.

“I will be honored to present this year’s Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering to Jean Fréchet and C. Grant Willson for their groundbreaking invention,” said NAE President John L. Anderson. “You can see the tangible impact of their work just by looking at your phone, computer or many other digital devices made possible by the creation of this photoresist material.”

When CAR materials were invented, the semiconductor industry was approaching a limit. The existing lithography process and the available resist materials being used in the fabrication process could not form the smaller images required to continue improving devices. The method of chemically amplifying resist materials developed by Willson and Fréchet provided higher sensitivity, which improved production efficiency by reducing the photo irradiation time required for image formation and enabled the production of much smaller structures.

Willson’s research focuses on the design and synthesis of functional organic materials with emphasis on organic materials for microelectronics. He joined UT as a faculty member in 1993 after working at IBM for 17 years; when he left, he was an IBM fellow and manager of Polymer Science and Technology at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California.

Willson has been recognized for his work in this area with numerous national and international honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008 and the Japan Prize, also with Fréchet, in 2013. He is a recipient of the National Academy of Science’s Award for Chemistry in Service to Society. He has been honored with many awards from the American Chemical Society, including the Polymer Chemistry, Applied Polymer Science, Chemistry of Materials and Heroes in Chemistry awards, among others. He is also a fellow of the American Chemical Society, Materials Research Society and Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers, as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, American Society for Engineering Education and Society of Petroleum Engineers. He received both his B.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his M.S. from San Diego State University, all in organic chemistry.

The Draper Prize was established and endowed in 1988 and is awarded biennially. Past winners can be found online, including Cockrell School professor John Goodenough, who received the prize in 2014. The 2020 Prize will be presented at a gala event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 19. For more information, visit the NAE website.