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Nobel Prize in chemistry goes to three scientists for tiny, colorful quantum dots

Moungi Bawendi of MIT, one of the 2023 winners of the chemistry Nobel Prize, embraces his step-daughter Julia Teller, left, at their home in Cambridge, Mass.
Steven Senne
/
AP
Moungi Bawendi of MIT, one of the 2023 winners of the chemistry Nobel Prize, embraces his step-daughter Julia Teller, left, at their home in Cambridge, Mass.

Updated October 4, 2023 at 8:06 AM ET

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Moungi G. Bawendi of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Louis E. Brus of Columbia University, and Alexei I. Ekimov of Nanocrystals Technology Inc. in New York for the discovery and development of quantum dots.

The three scientists each contributed to a "fundamental discovery in nanotechnology," according to officials from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards several of the prizes each year. The work they've done has already led to new technology in television screens and in bioimaging.

Reached by phone during a press conference early Wednesday morning, Bawendi offered a stream of reactions: "Very surprised. Sleepy. Shocked. Unexpected. And very honored."

In a rare event, the winners' names were leaked to the Swedish media before the official announcement. But Bawendi said he'd been sound asleep, "so, no, I didn't hear anything about it."

Quantum dots are particles that are so incredibly small that their size actually starts to affect their properties. For example, blue quantum dots and red quantum dots can be made from the exact same material, with the only difference being the size of the particle itself. (The blue quantum dots are smaller than red ones.)

In fact, changing the size can alter many different properties beyond just color – which means that quantum dots could be useful for a variety of applications, including building better solar panels and perhaps even creating fuel by using sunlight (something that plants do to generate sugars).

While it may sound like a subject closer to physics, officials said that it was chemists who did much of the fundamental research in this field.

The three scientists will share the prize money of 11 million Swedish kronor (close to $995,000) in equal parts.

This is the third science-focused Nobel Prize to be awarded this week. On Tuesday, the physics prize was awarded toAnne L'Huillier, Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz for helping to create super-short pulses of light that offer a glimpse into the incredibly fast and tiny world of electrons.

And on Monday, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman won the prize in physiology or medicine for discoveries that were key to the development of mRNA vaccines, which proved crucial in the fight against COVID-19.

Officials plan to announce the literature prize on Thursday, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize will be awarded on Monday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Amina Khan
Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.