For someone who would go on to become one of the leading chemistry scientists in the world, Moungi G. Bawendi got off to an inauspicious start.
The future Nobel Laureate flunked his first chemistry exam as a freshman at Harvard University, scoring 20 out of 100, the lowest grade in the class. Bawendi had so easily aced all of his high school chemistry tests that he didn’t prepare for the Harvard exam, he recalled at a press conference Wednesday to celebrate his Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the end of me here,’ ” Bawendi said of the Harvard test. “But I knew the material, I just didn’t know how to practice for exams. And I learned how to do that. After that it was 100s on every exam, pretty much.”
On Wednesday, Bawendi, 62, was awarded the prize for the discovery and synthesis of “quantum dots,” tiny particles used in an array of technologies. The other recipients were Columbia University professor Louis E. Brus, 80, and Alexei I. Ekimov, 78, of Nanocrystals Technology Inc. in New York, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced.
“Quantum dots now illuminate computer monitors and television screens based on QLED technology. They also add nuance to the light of some LED lamps, and biochemists and doctors use them to map biological tissue,” the academy wrote in a statement. “Quantum dots are thus bringing the greatest benefit to humankind. Researchers believe that in the future they could contribute to flexible electronics, tiny sensors, thinner solar cells and encrypted quantum communication — so we have just started exploring the potential of these tiny particles.”
The award includes a cash prize of about $1 million shared among the awardees, an 18-carat gold medal, and a diploma. The award ceremonies will be held in December.
Bawendi’s success in undergraduate chemistry led him to a PhD program at the University of Chicago and a summer internship at the famed Bell Labs in New Jersey in the 1980s. It was there he first met Nobel co-recipient Brus and became interested in the puzzle of quantum dots, tiny crystals that could be manipulated to emit different colors of light.
Brus was investigating how the rules of quantum physics affected the properties of cadmium sulfide, a yellow powder used in lasers and solar cells. His breakthrough 1983 paper described how different-sized particles made of the same substance could emit different wavelengths of light, similar to the findings a few years earlier by Ekimov, the third co-recipient of the prize.
The environment at Bell Labs was different from the academic world, as experts interacted from many fields. “There was a cauldron of energy and science,” Bawendi said. “And so when it was time to apply for a postdoctoral position, I couldn’t wait to go back there.”
Bawendi joined the MIT chemistry department as a professor in 1990, where his research focused on new methods to create a large quantity of identically sized quantum dots.
In 1993, he and a team of students hit on the right recipe. “There was a lot of trial and error and failure,” he said. “When I got to MIT, pretty much nothing worked and we needed to reinvent everything. And it’s through that reinvention process, over the course of a couple of years, we got to where we needed to be.”
After a 2002 paper by Bawendi and fellow MIT professor Vladimir Bulović explored using quantum dots in light-emitting diodes, some of the first commercial applications for the tiny crystals were in computer and television displays. In 2004, the two professors and some students formed a company called QD Vision in Lexington to develop display technology. The first TV using quantum dots, introduced by Sony in 2013, used the company’s tech. Samsung bought QD Vision in 2016.
Now quantum dots are commonly used in TVs and monitors to provide the most vibrant and saturated colors, said Seth Coe-Sullivan, a former MIT student who worked with Bawendi and cofounded QD Vision. “There’s something like $60 [billion] or $80 billion worth of commercialized products that contain quantum dots,” Coe-Sullivan said.
Bawendi was brilliant but also humble, his cofounder said. “He speaks so softly that you have to lean in to hear what he’s saying,” said Coe-Sullivan, now cofounder and chief executive of another quantum dot startup based in Michigan. “And even loudmouths, like me, stop speaking immediately, because he’s going to say something so important that you wouldn’t dare miss it.”
Bawendi was born in Paris in 1961 to a French mother and Tunisian father. He grew up in Paris, Tunis, and Nice before emigrating at age 10 to Indiana, where his father taught math at Purdue University. He graduated from Harvard in 1982 and received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1988.
At the press conference, Bawendi said he was “deeply honored and surprised and shocked” by the Nobel committee’s decision. He thanked Brus, who was his postdoctoral mentor, and his many students over the years at MIT. The university is “just a different place in the world. And I’m so grateful that MIT supported me through my career all these years.”
On Wednesday morning, after waking early to learn the news of his Nobel prize, Bawendi showed up at MIT to teach his 9 a.m. class in introductory quantum mechanics. But he didn’t cover any of the course material, as his students wanted to hear the story of quantum dots.
“I didn’t talk about what I was supposed to talk about,” Bawendi said. “I think it branched in a different direction than I expected.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.