Lessons Learned from Moungi Bawendi’s Nobel Lecture

Moungi Bawendi, 2023 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, presents his lecture on quantum dots and his scientific journey.

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Professor Moungi Bawendi delivers his Nobel Lecture in Huntington Hall, Thursday, February 8
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Moungi Bawendi shares his lab notes from his time at Bell Labs in his Nobel Lecture, Thursday, February 8
Photo Courtesy of Moungi Bawendi

On Feb 8, hundreds of students and faculty poured into Huntington Hall, eager to grab a seat to listen to Professor Moungi Bawendi present his Nobel lecture titled, “A Synthesis for Quantum Dots Unlocks a Nano-world of Opportunities.” By 3:55 p.m., ten minutes prior to the official start time, there were no open seats, and people were piling into the aisles. MIT time was not on anyone’s mind.

Quantum dots are nanocrystals so small that their size determines properties such as their color. Bawendi explained that when he first began working with quantum dots, details about their synthesis were often in the footnotes of research papers. A yield of 20% was typical. Speaking with The Tech, Bawendi stated that this yield, though low, was not discouraging at the time — he was a basic scientist not yet considering applications, and 20% was typically enough to study the quantum dots.

During the lecture, he shared a photo of his lab notes from 1990, describing the process as “magic” in the top right corner. He joked that this ‘magic’ didn’t always work.

However, to better characterize quantum dots, he needed to be able to produce specific, consistent samples. Among his goals was the creation of defect-free quantum dots and the ability to control the size and create a variety of sizes — this was critical to studying the evolution from molecular to bulk-like crystals.

However, upon starting his lab at MIT, he struggled to produce any quantum dots. Using this blank slate as a springboard for new ideas, the lab developed a scalable, single-step process for synthesizing high-quality quantum dots of various sizes. At this point, Bawendi was not focused on applications at all — he was a basic scientist looking to improve a previously expensive and not-well-controlled process. They published the paper, “Synthesis and Characterization of Nearly Monodisperse Cde (E = S, Se, Te) Semiconductor Nanocrystallites” which was cited for the Nobel Prize.

Bawendi described the Nobel as “validation” for his work, as not everyone always thought his work was important or interesting. Bawendi told The Tech in a previous interview that for a period of time, “I thought my career was over.”

Thanks to his research, the yield of quantum dots now approaches 100%. They have changed the way we live and see the world. Quantum dots light up our TV displays and live-image tumors. Bawendi describes them as analogous to a periodic table — quantum dots are building blocks that can be assembled to uncover new properties for new purposes, and there’s no telling what the field will come up with next.

Looking towards the future, Bawendi is excited about the application of quantum dots to photocatalysis and solar cells, and wants to dive deeper into quantum physics. Acquiring new knowledge has been one of Bawendi’s life-long pursuits, and he shows no signs of stopping. “I need to learn more,” he said.He also highlighted the importance of meeting people at conferences and collaborating with them.  

Ending his lecture, he praised the culture of MIT for bringing together both basic scientists and engineers vying for practical applications, and thanked his students, who ultimately make this work possible.