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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dr. Brown: Nanoparticles and light, the Nobel Prize in chemistry
A computer generated image of nanoparticles. RICHARD HARLEY/MIDJOURNEY

“Your father would expect better and so do I,” was what my organic chemistry professor told me in my second pre-medicine year at the University of Western Ontario.

My father was a chemical engineer and good friend of Prof. Baldwin, who was a soft-spoken, kind man but had little patience for those who were lackadaisical – one of the several words he applied to me that day.

It would be many years before I took much interest in chemistry and only then in the last seven years of reviewing the Nobel Prizes did I come to realize how amazing physics, chemistry and biochemistry were at the highest level.

The quality was exemplified by the achievements of Nobel laureates each year such as the Nobel Prizes awarded to Francis Arnold in 2018 for, in her words, “harnessing evolution” to create effective enzymes for cleaning up some of the world’s worst garbage.

The following year, it was awarded to Stanley Whittingham, Akira Yoshino and John Goodenough for their work on the lithium-ion battery, modern versions of which, power our smart phones, many tools, and cars.

They were followed by the brilliant Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020 for harnessing (my word this time) messenger RNA as a tool for editing genes, David Julius and Arden Patapoutian in 2021 for their truly elegant work on touch and temperature receptors.

Last year’s prizes went to Barry Sharpless and Morten Meidal, who showed us how to make complex proteins by “clicking” simpler ones together, and Carolyn Bertozzi, for her outstanding work applying similar principles for clicking proteins together biological systems to in her case, better understand how glycans (complex sugars) work in living cells.

This year, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Alexei Ekimov for their foundational work on developing, understanding and manufacturing tiny nanoparticles for creating brilliant colours in, for example, our TV sets or medical imaging devices.

The creation of colour using nanoparticles has a long history. Glassmakers were well aware that coating glass with gold, silver, cadmium, sulphur and selenium changed the optical properties of heat-treated silica glass and the colours of the glass.

Little did they know that the properties they created were the product of nanoparticles. As far back as Greco-Roman times, solutions of what turned out to be nanoparticles were used to blacken hair or colour glass.

Nanoparticles have special properties – they absorb light and then re-emit the light in a different colour. The size of the nanocrystal at the ångstrom scale, determines the colour.

The latter property reflects the fact that at the ångstrom scale, quantum rules apply and hence their name, quantum dots.

Quantum dots are microscopic nanocrystals that, when struck for example with a blue light, emit vivid red or green colours depending on the size of the crystals.

This colour-enhancing technology is primarily found in LCD TVs, though some OLED TVs now have them as well.

Quantum dots are the primary technology that allow LCD TVs to produce the wide colour gamut required to display Ultra HD content properly, as they greatly increase the colour saturation of red and green.

Summing up the current state of nanophysics, Heiner Linke, a professor of nanophysics at Lund University in Sweden and member of the Nobel committee for chemistry, put it this way: “In this class of materials, ways have been found of changing their properties, not by changing the material, but by changing the size. This is a foundational discovery in nanotechnology – the ability to do this in a controlled manner using quantum mechanical effects.”

The committee went on to add that “the modern field of nanoscience requires precise and ideally atom-level control of the synthesis of nanostructures. Therefore, the ability to fabricate materials at nanometre size with sub-nanometre precision and high fidelity, safely, in bench-top chemical batch reactions, represents a key milestone in the development of the new field of nanoscience.”

It concluded as such: “This year’s laureates played a central role in establishing these capabilities and in this way provide seeds for the rich field of nanoscience to grow.”

My father would have known nothing of this, or the exciting work that led to so many Nobel Prizes in the closely related fields of quantum mechanics, chemistry, and biochemistry. But he was a well-read curious man who kept a microscope on his desk at home and used it to explore nature.

He also kept up to date with his academic colleagues, including Prof. Baldwin, and for several years chaired meetings with visiting scientists in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario.

He died in the late 1970s. I think he would be proud that, eventually, I took an interest in chemistry and physics beyond what I needed to know for practical medicine.

So, wherever you are Dad, I finally took chemistry seriously and very glad I did.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

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