UChicago alum Moungi Bawendi shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovery of quantum dots

Research by Bawendi, PhD’88, paved way for wide use of nano-sized particles in technology

University of Chicago alum Moungi Bawendi was awarded a share of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering research on extremely tiny particles known as quantum dots.

Bawendi, who received his Ph.D from UChicago in 1988, currently serves as the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry at MIT. He was one of three scientists honored on Oct. 4 for their roles in the discovery and development of quantum dots—nano-sized particles with surprising properties that are widely used today in televisions, medical imaging, and LED lighting, among other applications. He shared the prize with Louis E. Brus and Alexei I. Ekimov.

"It’s quite an honor and quite a surprise,” Bawendi told the Nobel Foundation. Bawendi is among the 98 scholars associated with the University of Chicago to receive a Nobel Prize.

The award recognizes quantum dots, which are particles so small that their properties are determined by the laws of quantum mechanics. Today you can buy a quantum dot TV at any electronics store, but until the 1990s, it was not clear they could be easily or accurately made.

The Nobel committee wrote: “In 1993, Moungi Bawendi revolutionized the chemical production of quantum dots, resulting in almost perfect particles. This high quality was necessary for them to be utilized in applications.”

“At the time it was really to understand the physics of the material—we needed really good samples to understand the physics, but I had no idea this would become what it is today,” Bawendi said. “Over the years, you know, many of us in the field kept thinking, “When is this going to end?” But the field just keeps on giving, and it’s been really amazing to see that.”

Bawendi and his team invented a way to use one-photon excitation to perform single quantum dot spectroscopy and demonstrated applications of these quantum dots—ranging from lasers and electroluminescence to biomedical imaging.

University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos, also a pioneer in nanotechnology, worked with both Bawendi and Brus at Bell Laboratories in the 1980s to understand and push the boundaries of what was possible with quantum dots.

“The field of nanoscience and quantum engineering is one of the most fascinating and promising areas of contemporary science, and it’s a joy for me to see the beautiful field of quantum dot research recognized today with the Nobel. It is doubly wonderful that my mentor, Louis Brus, and longtime fellow quantum dot researcher and UChicago alum, Moungi Bawendi, are being recognized,” said Alivisatos, the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry at UChicago.

“We worked with a spirit of adventure in the heady multidisciplinary environment of materials discovery that Bell Labs fostered, without a concrete sense of what the applications might be. I extend my deep congratulations to Louis, Moungi and Alexei Ekimov for their well-deserved recognition with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and I look forward to seeing the further flowering of this remarkable line of research.”

Bawendi received his A.B. in 1982 from Harvard University. As a graduate student at UChicago, he worked first on polymer theory with Karl Freed, now the Henry G. Gale Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry.

He then conducted experiments on molecular ion spectroscopy with Takeshi Oka, now the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Astronomy and Astrophysics and Chemistry.

Oka recalled him as an “extremely bright and independent” student. He recommended Bawendi to a summer program with Bell Laboratories, where Bawendi met Brus and was introduced to the problem of quantum dots.

“I’m very happy his research along these lines was recognized with a Nobel Prize,” said Oka. “I look forward to congratulating him in person.”

After completing his Ph.D, Bawendi spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at Bell Laboratories, working with Brus. Bawendi joined the faculty at MIT in 1990, becoming associate professor in 1995 and professor in 1996.

"There is nothing more exciting than hearing the news of a former student getting recognized with a Nobel Prize! This is a testament to the central mission of the department—preeminent research and training of future leaders," said Prof. Jiwoong Park, chair of the UChicago department of chemistry. "Our most heartfelt congratulations to Prof. Bawendi, for his path defining research in quantum dot chemistry and his impressive career that started here at UChicago four decades ago."