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LONDON — The 2023 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to three scientists for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots, tiny particles that have fueled innovations in nanotechnology from televisions to mapping different tissues in the body. 

The prize went to Moungi Bawendi of MIT, Louis Brus of Columbia University, and Alexei Ekimov, formerly the chief scientist at Nanocrystals Technology in New York. They will split 11 million Swedish kronor, about $1 million, and have their names added to a list of chemistry Nobel winners that prior to this year included 189 names (two of whom have won the prize twice). Eight women have received the honor.


Quantum dots are so tiny that their properties are influenced by their size. In particular, the dots of different size produce different colors. 

The trio of scientists, in research in the 1980s and 1990s, advanced the field by demonstrating such quantum effects and figuring out how to produce quantum dots.

Quantum dots were in effect a new set of materials, the Nobel panel explained Wednesday, which gave engineers control over their features. By confining electrons in smaller and smaller particles, they could tune the dots to send out different colors of light.


Such an idea was theorized as far back as the 1930s, but it wasn’t until five decades later that Ekimov and Brus separately proved the quantum effects in lab experiments. In 1993, Bawendi invented a method for making the dots with high-quality consistency. 

Already, quantum dots are used widely — they could be producing the different colors on the screen you’re reading this on. Their potential applications include improving solar cells and flexible electronics.

In biomedicine, they’re used in imaging. Scientists can attach the dots to molecules to delineate, for example, the vascular system of a tumor on a scan, opening up the possibility of tracking a cancer’s progression. They can also distinguish between types of cells at high specificity, helping steer surgeons as they cut out a tumor but leave healthy tissue behind.

Early versions of quantum dots were made with toxic metals such as cadmium and lead that precluded their use in medicine, but more recently, they’ve been made from less toxic materials that contain silver, copper, and even carbon. Researchers have also developed more bio-compatible coatings for quantum dots as well.

Brittany Trang contributed reporting.

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