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Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of “quantum dots”, tiny nanoparticles with many applications in electronics ranging from display screens to medical technology.
Moungi Bawendi from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Louis Brus of New York’s Columbia University and Alexei Ekimov of Nanocrystals Technology, a small US tech company, share the SKr11mn ($1mn) prize.
Quantum dots are semiconductor materials a few nanometres (millionths of a millimetre) wide whose properties, particularly their colour, are influenced by their extremely small size.
“These tiny particles have unique properties and now spread their light from television screens and LED lamps. They catalyse chemical reactions,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in its Nobel citation. It pointed out that their clear light can mark and illuminate tumour tissue for surgeons, for example.
The trio began the research that led to their awards several decades ago. Working independently in the 1980s, Ekimov at the SI Vavilov State Optical Institute in the Soviet Union and Brus at Bell Laboratories in the US discovered that the colours emitted by nanoparticles depended on their size. As they became smaller, they changed from red through yellow and green to blue.
Then in the early 1990s, Bawendi at MIT revolutionised the chemical production of quantum dots, resulting in the development of particles suitable for practical applications.
Speaking by phone to the Nobel announcement press conference in Stockholm, Bawendi said he felt “surprised, sleepy and very honoured” after Hans Ellegren, the academy’s secretary-general, woke him up with news of his award.
The initial group of quantum dot pioneers grew quickly, Bawendi said, when “the community realised the implications in the mid-1990s that there could be some real-world applications”.
Today, he added, quantum dots are widely used in electronics for displays and other purposes, including coloured “tags” for biological materials. “There’s a lot of work . . . on other potential applications including catalysis and quantum effects of all sorts,” Bawendi said. “It’s a very exciting area of research.”
Gilles Georges, chief scientist at CAS, the scientific information division of the American Chemical Society, said: “We are seeing significant emerging research. It is advancing fields such as sustainable energy and consumer electronics, including making solar cells more efficient, more flexible and less expensive to manufacture.”
In an unusual breach of the strict protocol around Nobel Prize decisions, Swedish media reported the names of the winners hours before the official announcement.
“There was a press release sent out for still unknown reasons. We have been very active this morning to find out exactly what happened,” said Ellegren. “This is very unfortunate and we deeply regret what happened.”
By recognising these advances in the science of ultra-small particles, the chemistry prize announced on Wednesday echoed the physics prize the previous day, awarded to three researchers who discovered how to generate extremely short light pulses.
The chemistry award is the third of this year’s six Nobel Prizes to be announced. Two scientists received the medicine prize on Monday for discoveries leading to mRNA-based Covid vaccines. The literature prize will be announced on Thursday, peace on Friday and economics on Monday.