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Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded for ‘Quantum Dots’ that Bring Light to Our Computer Screen

image of winners of nobel prize
Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Aleksey Ekimov carry out their work at universities and centers in the United States (Illustration: Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach)

Scientists Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus, and Aleksey Ekimov won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of tiny clusters of atoms known as quantum dots, widely used today to create colors in flat screens, light emitting diode (LED) lamps and devices that help surgeons see blood vessels in tumors.

The prize-awarding academy said that their findings on quantum dots, which in size ratio have the same relationship to a football, as a football to the earth, had “added color to nanotechnology” when matter is used on an atomic or molecular level in manufacturing.

“Researchers believe that in the future they could contribute to flexible electronics, tiny sensors, thinner solar cells, and encrypted quantum communication,” the academy said in a statement.

Nobel Chemistry Prize 2023

The more than century-old prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and is worth 11 million Swedish crowns ($1 million).

One of the “fascinating and unusual properties” of quantum dots is that they change light color depending on the particle size while keeping the atomic structure unchanged, said Johan Aqvist, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Asked during a press conference how he felt to hear news of his award, Bawendi said by phone from the United States: “very surprised, sleepy, shocked, unexpected and very honored.”

He added that quantum dots were still being heavily researched. “I’m sure something really interesting is going to come out of this.”

Moungi G. Bawendi is an American-French-Tunisian chemist. He is currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Photo: Reuters)

An Unexpected Leak

Earlier on Wednesday, the academy appeared to have inadvertently shared the prize winners’ names with Swedish newspapers Aftonbladet and Dagens Nyheter, even before its final vote.

“It was very unfortunate that the press release got out and we still don’t know why it happened,” said Hans Ellegren, the academy’s secretary general. He added it did not affect the choice of laureates.

The quantum dot technology, which enabled high-definition QLED TVs sold by Samsung, Sony, or TCL, traces its roots to early 1980s work by Ekimov.

Alexey Ivanovich Ekimov is a Russian physicist who discovered semiconductor nanocrystals while working at the Vavilov State Optical Institute. (Photo: Reuters)

At the time, he discovered that the color of glass changes with the size of copper chloride molecules contained in it and that sub-atomic forces were at play.

Speaking on the phone, 78-year-old Ekimov who was born in the Soviet Union and later moved to the U.S., marveled at the latest flat screen technology, something he did not envision during his early pioneering work. “Remember what a TV was back then!” he said, laughing.

A few years later, Brus extended the work to fluids.

In 1993, Bawendi revolutionized the production of quantum dots and improved their quality. Among other uses, the research enabled LEDs that shine more like natural sunlight, avoiding the bluish neon light they were previously shunned for.

Bawendi is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Brus is professor emeritus at Columbia University and Ekimov works for Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

Brus was hired by AT&T Bell Labs in 1972 where he spent 23 years, devoting much of the time to studying nanocrystals.

Bawendi was born in Paris and grew up in France, Tunisia, and the United States.

“At first I ignored the calls, but after six missed calls, I picked up the phone and found out. I forgot that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced. It was a surprise, I didn’t expect it,” said Louis Brus, a professor at Columbia University. (Photo: Reuters)

About the Nobel Prize

The third of this year’s crop of awards, the chemistry Nobel follows those for medicine and physics announced this week.

Established in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and chemist Alfred Nobel, the prizes for achievements in science, literature, and peace have been awarded since 1901 with a few interruptions, primarily due to the world wars.

The economics prize is a later addition funded by the Swedish central bank.

While the chemistry awards are sometimes overshadowed by the physics prize and its famous winners such as Albert Einstein, chemistry laureates include many scientific greats, including radioactivity pioneer Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie, who also won the physics prize.

Last year’s chemistry award went to scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal, and Barry Sharpless for pioneering work in “click chemistry”, discovering reactions that let molecules snap together to create new compounds. (Reuters)

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