Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to three scientists for their work in nanotechnology

Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Alexei Ekimov have won the 2023 award

Permanent Secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences Hans Ellegren, centre, announces the winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. AP
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The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Alexei Ekimov.

Hans Ellegren, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said this year's prize was about their discovery in nanotechnology.

“The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2023 rewards the discovery and development of quantum dots, nanoparticles so tiny that their size determines their properties,” he said.

“These smallest components of nanotechnology now spread their light from televisions and LED lamps, and can also guide surgeons when they remove tumour tissue, among many other things.”

The judges said the laureates have all been “pioneers in the exploration of the nanoworld”.

“Everyone who studies chemistry learns that an element’s properties are governed by how many electrons it has. However, when matter shrinks to nano-dimensions quantum phenomena arise; these are governed by the size of the matter,” the judges said.

“The Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2023 have succeeded in producing particles so small that their properties are determined by quantum phenomena. The particles, which are called quantum dots, are now of great importance in nanotechnology.

“Physicists had long known that in theory, size-dependent quantum effects could arise in nanoparticles, but at that time it was almost impossible to sculpt in nano dimensions. Therefore, few people believed that this knowledge would be put to practical use.”

In the early 1980s, Professor Ekimov, who works for Nanocrystals Technology, first succeeded in creating size-dependent quantum effects in coloured glass.

The colour came from nanoparticles of copper chloride and he was able to demonstrate that the particle size affected the colour of the glass via quantum effects.

A few years later, Professor Brus, professor emeritus at Columbia University, was the first scientist in the world to prove size-dependent quantum effects in particles floating freely in a fluid.

In 1993, Professor Bawendi, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, revolutionised the chemical production of quantum dots, resulting in almost perfect particles. This high quality was necessary for them to be utilised in applications.

Quantum dots now illuminate computer monitors and television screens based on QLED technology. They also add nuance to the light of some LED lamps. Biochemists and doctors use them to map biological tissue.

“Quantum dots are thus bringing the greatest benefit to humankind,” the judges said.

“Researchers believe that in the future they could contribute to flexible electronics, tiny sensors, thinner solar cells and encrypted quantum communication – so we have just started exploring the potential of these tiny particles.”

Professor Bawendi said on Wednesday he was “honoured” to receive the award.

“I was very surprised, shocked, it was unexpected and I'm very honoured,” he said.

Professor Bawendi was born in Paris and grew up in France, Tunisia, and the US. He did his postdoctoral research under Professor Brus before joining MIT in 1990 and becoming a professor in 1996.

Professor Ekimov was born in the Soviet Union and worked for the Vavilov State Optical Institute before moving to the US.

In 1999, he was named chief scientist at Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

Hours before the announcement Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences inadvertently published the names of the winners, although the award-giving institute said the decision was still hours away.

Johan Aqvist, chair of the academy's Nobel Committee for Chemistry, clarified that the committee had not yet decided on the winner.

However, those named earlier were the actual winners.

When asked if he already knew he had won, Professor Bawendi said he had been asleep and was unaware of the leak.

Last year, the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists for their work in developing a way of “snapping molecules together”.

Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University, California, Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen, and K Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research, California, were cited “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry”.

In 2021, the prize was awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan for finding an environmentally cleaner way to build molecules, which the Nobel panel said is “already benefiting humankind greatly”.

The prize, which is over 100 years old, is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and is worth 11 million Swedish crowns ($990,019).

Updated: October 04, 2023, 10:26 AM