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One Small Quantum Dot, One Giant Leap for Nanoscience: Moungi Bawendi ’82 Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Moungi G. Bawendi '82 was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing quantum dots.
Moungi G. Bawendi '82 was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing quantum dots. By Courtesy of Michael Randall
By Jasmine Palma and Austin H. Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

Moungi G. Bawendi ’82 was among three scientists awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced in a press release Wednesday morning.

Bawendi, professor of chemistry at MIT, won the prize in conjunction with Columbia University chemistry professor Louis E. Brus, also Bawendi’s postdoctoral supervisor, and Alexei I. Ekimov of Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

Together, the scientists are responsible for the discovery and development of quantum dots, small semiconducting crystals whose properties, like color, can be finely adjusted as a function of their size.

Ekimov and Brus are credited with the discovery of this new class of materials, while Bawendi is recognized for standardizing quantum dot synthesis methods, making them more “tunable.” This breakthrough allowed researchers and companies to achieve greater control over quantum dot size during their chemical production, enabling more precise and reproducible results.

Bawendi unexpectedly received the prize in the middle of the night.

“I was fast asleep when they called me. I was very surprised, very shocked,” he said.

He called it an “incredible honor” to receive the prize alongside his mentor.

“Louis taught me everything. He was my mentor. He’s an incredible human being, an incredible scholar and I try to emulate him in many ways,” Bawendi said.

Bawendi first met Brus, another one of this year’s laureates, at Bell Laboratories. Brus was one of a few scholars working on quantum dots at the time, and his work inspired Bawendi to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship with Brus.

According to Bawendi, they did not know the importance of their research back then.

“This was just really cool, it’s a brand new material, you’re investigating the transition from molecular species to bulk material, and you’re investigating a regime that hasn’t really been investigated before,” he added.

These robust quantum dots are essentially very small balls that confine electrons into a compressed state. This makes them auspicious for storing energy, which the electrons release as electromagnetic radiation. These emitted bundles of light — or photons — vary in color depending on how much the electrons are squeezed, or the size of the quantum dot. The smaller the dot, the higher the energy frequency, translating to bluer light.

Beyond color, scientists can exert precise control over the quantum dots to elicit other unique optics, magnetic behavior, melting temperature, and other properties.

“These properties depend on the volume of these quantum dots, and these properties really emerge from the quantum mechanical behavior of electrons in the material,” he added.

These abilities put quantum dots at the crux of modern nanotechnology and materials sciences, with versatile applications in drug delivery, television color displays, biomedical imaging, and solar energy harvesting.

Bawendi credits a “great chemistry teacher in high school” for his choice of pursuing chemistry, though he has “always loved physics.”

While he was an undergraduate at Harvard, Bawendi said he “loved theory” and “stuck around for an extra year and did a master’s in a theory group.”

He continued with polymer research while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Eventually, Bawendi decided to make the switch from theorist to experimentalist.

“I missed experiments, I missed seeing data being acquired, really discovering new things through interfacing with the real world,” he said.

Bawendi’s lab continues to work with quantum dots, especially their potential use as quantum emitters, sources of “very special kinds of photons.”

“You might be able to do something called photon entanglement, create these really weird quantum entities that we can then use for cryptography or for communication, for computing, or even sensing,” he added.

Bawendi stressed “the importance of curiosity-driven research.”

“So often, the research needs to be somehow motivated by some societal need or application, which is fine, but there also needs to be space for just being curious, because that's where the discoveries actually come from.”

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @jasmine_palma_.

—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at austin.wang@thecrimson.com.

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