The 2022 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience has been awarded to Professor David Alara of Penn State University, Professor Ralph Nuzo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Professor Jacob Sagiv of the Weizmann Institute of Science and Professor George Whitesides of Harvard University for their contributions. and field development of self-assembled monolayers on solid substrates. The four winners will share a $1 million prize. The Kavli Prize is awarded every two years in three categories that celebrate research successes large (astrophysics), small (nanoscience) and complex (neuroscience).
This year’s winners truly represent the iceberg on which recent scientific advances are floating. When substances interact, they do so through their surface chemistry – chemical structure, molecular arrangement, texture and the strength of a material’s surface layer all play a role in its function and interaction. Materials science and engineering have always focused on purifying materials to maximize their application and efficiency, however, it was the dawn of nanoscience that captured the imagination of surface scientists. If we can engineer surfaces for specific applications and incorporate some properties of nanomaterials into the process, we can not only design but also fine-tune the way the materials interact with each other and with their environment.
This area of research rests over centuries of scientific observation, with tales dating back to Benjamin Franklin in 1773. Inspired by the fishing communities of Portugal and Bermuda who saw them use oil on water to help them observe fish in choppy waters, he poured a teaspoon of oil onto a pond in Clapham Common, London, and I noticed a change in the waves on the surface, turning the surface of the pond into a smooth mirror. The oil spread across the pond’s surface, creating a thin film that affected the way the surfaces reacted to light. This rapid dispersion of the oil inspired Lord Rayleigh who, with the help of German chemist Agnes Bockels, published a paper asserting that the molecules within these thin films arrange themselves uniformly across the surface of a liquid.
Two early pioneers in the field of thin-film fabrication built on this foundational research; Catherine Blodgett, the first woman to receive a PhD in Physics from the University of Cambridge, and Irvine Langmuir, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist who initially developed a method for creating single-molecule thin films on the surface of water. Blodgett and Langmuir worked together to develop, among other things, the first “invisible” glass by depositing a thin, non-reflective film coating on the glass. They have developed a method by which they can deposit a single-molecule film on glass. With subsequent applications, they can also apply a specified number of monolayers, thus controlling the thickness of the coating. Since these thin films were within the nanometer range, their nanostructures could be designed to interact with visible light, with wavelengths also in the nanometer range, in customized ways. The team applied 44 layers to a piece of glass, which reduced the reflectivity in the glass, transmitting 99%, significantly reducing reflective glare. This had a range of applications, particularly in cinematography.
The winners of the 2022 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience have continued to build on the work of Langmuir and Blodgett. Professor Sagiv first demonstrated the adsorption of different thin films over a wider range of materials such as metal and glass. Professor Nuzzo and Professor Alara have further developed this technique, with breakthroughs in stronger absorption on exposed metal surfaces, and in the development of spectroscopic characterization techniques to characterize the self-assembled monolayers. This has resulted in the design of monolayers with specific functions for a range of applications. Professor Whitesides’ work on patterned materials made of self-assembled monolayers has seen commercial success in everything from pharmacology to chemical sensors and from electronics to medical diagnostics.
Self-assembled monolayers play a huge role in helping to solve the biggest global challenges, such as climate change. One of the ways we can manage climate change is by using cleaner energy. This energy must be renewable or sustainable, and it must also be cheap enough to be widely adopted. By indexing scientific publications on self-assembled monolayers from the past decade against the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we can see the impact of this technology on SDG 7, clean and affordable energy, in particular, thanks in part to its application In technology batteries, energy-harvesting thin-film solar cells, and semiconductor devices.
Evolving science is always resting on a broad base of foundational research, and the Kavli Foundation certainly recognizes this. By celebrating these influential contributions to science, we hope that others will continue to build on the work of the latest Kavli Prize winners, and more new applications will be developed to continue helping humanity overcome big challenges using small science.