Nobel chemistry prize winners for work on quantum dots leaked early, and then announced

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has awarded on Wednesday to three U.S.-based scientists for the “discovery and synthesis of quantum dots.”

The prize was awarded to scientists Moungi Bawendi from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Louis Brus of Columbia University and Alexi Ekimov from Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

The trio were recognized for their work with the tiny particles that are just a few atoms in diameter and whose electrons have constrained movement. This effects how they absorb and release visible light, allowing for very bright colours. They are used in many electronics, like LED displays, and can be utilized to assist cancer surgeons.

“These tiny particles have unique properties and now spread their light from television screens and LED lamps. They catalyze chemical reactions and their clear light can illuminate tumour tissue for a surgeon,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which announced the award in Stockholm.

Laboratory flasks are used for explanation during the announcement of the winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in chemistry at Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Wednesday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

The announcement came after Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences may have announced the winners prematurely. SVT said the academy sent a press release by mistake early Wednesday that contained the names of those honoured.

“There was a press release sent out for still unknown reasons. We have been very active this morning to find out exactly what happened,” Hans Ellegren, the secretary general of the academy, told the news conference where the award was announced.

“This is very unfortunate, we do regret what happened.”

Real-world applications

Bawendi said via phone he was awakened by the Swedish academy and was unaware of the leak. He was also surprised to be a winner.

“It’s a field that a lot of people have contributed to since its beginning,” he said.

Quantum dots’ electrons have what is called constrained movement, which affects how they absorb and release visible light, allowing for very bright colours.

The dots are nanoparticles that glow blue, red, or green when illuminated or exposed to light. The colour they emit depends on the size of the particles. Larger dots shine red, and smaller dots shine blue. The colour change is due to how electrons act differently in more or less confined spaces.

While physicists had predicted these colour-change properties as early as the 1930s, creating quantum dots of specific controlled sizes was not possible in the lab for another five decades.

Ekimov, 78, and Brus, 80, are early pioneers of the technology recognized Wednesday, while Bawendi, 62, is credited with revolutionizing the production of quantum dots “resulting in almost perfect particles,” as described by the academy.

“The community realized the implications in the mid-90s, that there could potentially be some real world applications,” Bawendi said.

Peace Prize revealed on Friday

The academy, which awards the physics, chemistry and economics prizes, asks for nominations a year in advance from thousands of university professors and other scholars around the world.

A committee for each prize then discusses candidates in a series of meetings throughout the year. At the end of the process, the committee presents one or more proposals to the full academy for a vote. The deliberations, including the names of nominees other than the winners, are kept confidential.

The Nobel Prize was created by wealthy Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who in his will dictated that his estate should be used to fund “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The first awards were given out in 1901.

Winners of this year’s Nobel Prizes will get an extra 1 million crowns compared to last year, partly because the Swedish crown has lost around 30 per cent of its value against the euro the past decade. The prize money of 11 million Swedish crowns is the equivalent of $1.36 million Cdn.

The chemistry honours follow Nobel announcements so far this week in medicine and physics. The literature prize will be announced on Thursday, with the Nobel Peace Prize winner to be revealed on Friday.

The economics prize is announced on Oct. 9.

The Nobel prizes are presented to the laureates on Dec. 10.

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