2014 Kavli Prize Laureates in Nanoscience

Awarded to Thomas W. Ebbesen, Stefan W. Hell, Sir John B. Pendry

“for their transformative contributions to the field of nano-optics that have broken long-held beliefs about the limitations of the resolution limits of optical microscopy and imaging.”

THE 2014 KAVLI PRIZE IN NANOSCIENCE is awarded to Thomas Ebbesen, Stefan Hell, and Sir John Pendry “for their transformative contributions to the field of nano-optics that have broken long-held beliefs about the limitations of the resolution limits of optical microscopy and imaging.”

"Seeing" has often been the precursor to our cultural and scientific understanding of the world. Scientists have realized this from the time of Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century, when their innovations in optics opened up a new world at the micron scale. "Seeing at the nanoscale" was long-considered to be limited in visible resolution by the finite wavelength of "light," so that only objects larger than ~ 200 nanometres could be imaged. This is about 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Other technologies have been developed to allow us to overcome these resolution limitations: for example, beams of electrons and scanning probe instruments. However, for ease of use and compatibility with biological specimens, optical microscopy has unparalleled advantages. Each of this year’s prize winners, through their different insights and routes, has independently advanced our ability to "see" nanostructures using "ordinary" light. This ability to see and image nanoscale objects is a critical prerequisite to further advances in the broader field of nanoscience. Thus, this year’s prize winners have not only advanced our understanding of nano-optics, but in addition, the application of these new insights into the imaging process in turn promises to have an enduring benefit to a wide range of fields ranging from physics and chemistry to the biological and biomedical sciences.

Thomas W. Ebbesen is recognized with the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience
“for the discovery of the extraordinary transmission of light through sub-wavelength apertures.”

"Common wisdom" tells us that objects cannot pass through openings that are much smaller than themselves. In fact, since the 1940s, the definitive reference for the behaviour of light transmitted through small holes in a metal sheet was Bethe’s work, which predicted that the light intensity would fall off dramatically as the radius of the hole diminished substantially below the wavelength of light. This limitation poses a real challenge to optics and imaging at very small dimensions. Ebbesen has shown that, on the contrary, there can be an extraordinary transmission of light through nano-fabricated holes in thin metal films. The sizes of those holes are far smaller than the wavelength of the light itself.

His experiments in 1998 yielded results that thus challenged all prior accepted theories of light propagation through small holes. The underlying reasons have to do with efficient re-radiation made possible through plasmons – a cooperative oscillation of electrons, particularly intense in nanoscale structures. Ebbesen’s understanding of the basic mechanism, and his implementation of different structures to enhance the focus, direction, and general control of the plasmonic enhancement have led to new means of increasing the efficiency, spatial focus of photonic devices, and sensitivity of optical sensors.

Stefan W. Hell is recognized with the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience
“for ground-breaking developments that have led to fluorescence microscopy with nanometre scale resolution, opening up nanoscale imaging to biological applications.”

Ernst Abbe demonstrated in 1873 that optical microscopy should not be able to discern features that are closer than half the wave-length of light. The Abbe limit became a cornerstone of optics that was not questioned for the next 120 years.

Hell met this challenge and overcame the diffraction limit by more than an order of magnitude. He accomplished this through understanding both the imaging mechanisms and the nature of what is being imaged. A key issue in the clarity of an image has always been distinguishing signal from a broad background of noise. By deeply understanding the composition of what is being imaged, be it biological or non-biological in nature, Hell showed how to control the background noise by strategically "shutting off" molecular transitions at the appropriate time.  He calls this "shutting off" Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED): a technique that has now become accessible through instruments which he has helped to make commercially-available. Not only has STED-enabled imaging at dimensions far smaller than optical wavelengths for a broad class of materials, it has in particular made this a viable option for the life sciences. Remarkably, Hell’s techniques have made possible direct observation of dynamical processes in living cells at nanoscale resolution.

Sir John B. Pendry is recognized with the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience
“for developing the theory underlying new optical nanoscale materials with unprecedented properties, such as the negative index of refraction, allowing for the formation of ‘perfect lenses'.

For many of us, our association with "optics" is with the corrective lenses we wear, which often have imperfections: the images that are not quite in focus or have "aberrations" or rainbow-like haloes associated with the images. The issues are associated with the ways in which light "bends" when going from air through lens material and into air again, and this is related to the index of refraction of those materials. Pendry has created a model for constructing a perfect lens, based on materials not normally found in nature. Such special materials have a negative index of refraction, as previously discussed by Veselago. It was Pendry’s insight to reinvestigate these ideas in the context of real materials such as silver, gold, and copper, and to formulate the guidelines for the eventual realization of perfect lenses. With a growing body of experimental validation of his work, he has further stimulated a plethora of activities extending these concepts all the way across the visible spectrum and beyond.

Pendry has helped to formulate rules on how to incorporate different kinds of materials (metals and dielectrics) with nanoscale structures to form larger scale "metamaterials" with exciting new optical properties that nature has not before provided us with. Thus, he encourages us to challenge our previously held ideas about the kinds of optical materials that we can engineer, promising dramatically improved levels of efficiency in light emission, storage, and sensing.

Interviews & Video 

Adam Rutherford interviews the nanoscience laureates:

The Laureate Lectures in Nanoscience at the University of Oslo:

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Thomas Ebbesen

Thomas Ebbesen

"I would not have become a scientist had I not been able to develop my curiosity in the garden of my youth. I spent countless hours playing outdoors, creating imaginary worlds, inspired by everything small and big of the Norwegian wilderness. Starting school at seven felt very confining, compensated only by the gentleness of our teacher. It was soon clear that I was more at ease with numbers than with letters. When my parents gave me my first watch, which was in those days still something very special, I took it apart to understand how it worked. To the credit of my parents, they only reprimanded me lightly. But it was years before they gave me another one...

My parents were hands-on people who rebuilt and fixed their own homes, practical skills that I absorbed by watching them and which have served me all my life both in the lab and in my own home. My preschool years were also marked by the arrival of three siblings that my parents adopted, and suddenly I was the youngest of six. This made for a lively and loving family environment. Beyond such shared homely activities, my parents were very different; my mother is an artist painter and my father was an officer in the Norwegian Air Force working in military intelligence. He was deeply involved in the U2 surveillance flights over the USSR. When an U2 plane was shot down in 1960 on its way to northern Norway, it had direct consequences for our family. With the political upheaval that followed, it was decided that my father would join the Norwegian military delegation at NATO outside Paris." Continue


Stefan Hell

"I was born on 23 December 1962 in Arad, a medium-sized, ethnically diverse city in the western part of Romania, directly on the border to Hungary. In those days, Hungarian, Romanian, and German were the languages that could be heard on the street in a frequent mix, and most locals – including simple folk – spoke two or three of these languages fluently. Ethnic conflicts were unknown, because until 1918 the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and linguistic and religious diversity was the normal state of affairs. And after all, it was fun to join in celebrating the holidays of the others. My parents originated from a place a few kilometers further north, where they spoke mostly German, or more precisely, a dialect spoken in southwest Germany in the 18th century. This is where I spent most of my childhood.

My father worked as an engineer in a managerial position in a company. My mother was a primary school teacher. Actually – she used to remind me again and again – she would have liked to study mathematics, but in communist Romania in the 1950s it wasn’t possible due to her allegedly 'bourgeois' background. She was expelled from school several times, and only later was she able to obtain her school - leaving certificate with considerable effort. This circumstance, as well as several other calamities that befell the generation of my grandparents, including material dispossession and deportation to Soviet labour camps in 1945, eventually led to the view: ‘No one can take away what you have learned. And you always carry it with you wherever you go.’" Continue


John Pendry

"I was born in 1943 in a small town in northern England. We lived with my grandmother, who owned a shop selling sweets, ice cream, and chocolate – heaven for a small boy. The cellar beneath the shop was crammed with various pieces of abandoned mechanical and electrical equipment which must have stimulated my interest in science, and I cannot remember a time when science was not my preoccupation. In those days, experiments were of more interest that theory: loud explosions were heard in the vicinity, and neighbours’ television sets did not always function as expected. Later, to the relief of all, my interests turned to theoretical matters, largely because theorists find it easier to have a broader outlook. Music was another passion, and my desire to improve my piano technique continues to this day, but without the success that science has afforded me.

I was fortunate that an excellent education in science could be had at our local grammar school, where the more formal parts of my early science were put in place by my teachers. In particular, I was very much helped by my physics teacher and my headmaster, both of whom encouraged me to apply to their old college in Cambridge: Downing College where I matriculated in 1962 to study natural sciences which included physics, chemistry, mathematics, and crystallography. The latter I hated: the three dimensional thinking required was like an hour in the gym on the parallel bars, but I have to reflect that like physical exercise, the mental training has stood me in good stead. A lesson to bear in mind: not all excellent lecture courses are popular." Continue

Explanatory Notes 

The ability to image objects with visible light is at the heart of our perception of the world, and is essential in fields ranging from cancer diagnostics to astronomy. Up until only a few years ago, the resolution of optical imaging was thought to be limited by the wavelength of light, making it impossible to image nano-objects.

In making their award, the Kavli Prize Committee in Nanoscience has selected three scientists who have demonstrated how to break this resolution limit and how to use light to interact with matter with nanoscale precision, allowing the development of new and more efficient imaging techniques and photonic devices.

Thomas W. Ebbesen was primarily working on carbon nanostructures when he made an extraordinary observation in a different field. He noticed that light could be transmitted through a metal plate with a pattern of holes that were much smaller than the wavelength. The phenomenon was unexpected because it was assumed that, when a beam of light hits a hole smaller than its wavelength, it is affected by very poor transmission and strong diffraction.

More systematic experiments showed that this extraordinary optical transmission, as it was named in the seminal paper that reported the results in 1998, was only occurring for specific wavelengths, and there was a well-defined relationship between these wavelengths and the periodicity of the holes. The phenomenon was related to the interaction of the light beam with surface plasmons. These are collective electron states in a metal that can harvest the incident light at a wavelength determined by the geometry of the metallic surface, that is, the periodicity and shape of the holes. The effect of the plasmons was so strong that they could channel part of the light hitting the metal surface, and send it through the holes, resulting in a transmission higher than 100%.


Focused ion beam micrograph image of the bull’s eye structure on a 300 nm-thick silver film used to demonstrated transmission through a subwavelength hole. (Science 297, 820-822 [2002])

Ebbesen kept working on this topic and shortly after he and his colleagues showed that light could also be transmitted through a single hole in a metal plate measuring only a couple of hundred  nanometers in diameter. This worked as long as the hole was surrounded by a periodic structure of grooves in the metal that allowed a light beam to be coupled with the plasmons. What is more, not only can light be transmitted through such a small hole; it can also be beamed in a collimated ray. Ebbesen and co-workers studied a so-called bull’s eye structure, consisting in a periodic pattern of concentric grooves in a silver plate around a 200 nm hole. If the same structure is fabricated also on the output side of the hole, the light exits as in an almost parallel beam.

The extraordinary light transmission through sub-wavelength holes has several applications in diverse fields of photonics. Because of the dependence of the transmitted wavelength on the geometry of the metal plate, it is possible to design very selective optical filters or polarizers. The creation of collimated and very small beams can be used in photonic devices like lasers. Furthermore, it was shown that the fluorescence of a single molecule collected through one such hole is substantially enhanced. Finally, it is, in principle, possible to use the phenomenon to obtain very small features in lithography, the technique of forming patterns onto materials that allows subsequent formation of devices and circuits.

In the late 1980s, while working on his postgraduate project in Heidelberg, Stefan W. Hell became interested in ways to improve the resolution of confocal microscopy. In particular, he convinced himself that it would be possible to break the barrier of 200 nm resolution in optical microscopy imposed by Ernst Abbe’s law in 1873, assumed as a fundamental limit by the whole scientific community.

According to Abbe’s law, the optical resolution of a microscope is limited by the smallest spot at which a microscope objective can focus a laser beam. For example, in fluorescence microscopy, molecular dyes known as fluorophores are injected into a tissue and illuminated to produce an image. Fluorophores within the laser spot are all illuminated at the same time, resulting in a resolution which is at best 200 nm.

Hell realized that the best way to overcome the limitations set by Abbe’s law was to affect the electronic states of the fluorophores. In standard fluorescence microscopy, a laser beam is used to excite the fluorophores from their ground states to a state with higher energy. After a certain time, the fluorophores decay back to their ground state by the emission of light. In 1994, while working in Turku, Finland, Hell published a theoretical paper explaining the concept of what is now known as stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy. Beside the laser beam used in fluorescence microscopy, a second, donut-shaped beam was superimposed to the first one to force all fluorophores located outside the central hole of the donut back to the ground state without emitting light. By varying the intensity of the laser and the shape of the donut, it would be possible to improve the resolution, in principle to a few nanometers.


STED microscopy image of protein complexes (right), revealing a much higher resolution than conventional confocal microscopy (left). The scale bar is 500 nm. (Biophysical Journal 105, L01–L03 [2013])

The concept was intriguing but it had to wait a few years to be widely accepted. In 2000, Hell and co-workers published another paper, this time experimental, demonstrating the use of STED microscopy to obtain images with a resolution of just over 100 nm. In the following years, Hell’s research helped improving the resolution down to a few tens of nanometers and to develop other forms of microscopy, based on the concepts of STED, but necessitating much lower laser power. One such example is reversible saturable optical fluorescence transition (RESOLFT) microscopy.

Hell’s work has always been driven by the principle that the power of an optical microscope is ultimately determined by its resolution, and that the ability to distinguish details only a few nanometers apart would lead to essential information on how proteins, lipids, and even neurons interact with each other. A beautiful example of the success of his approach is the imaging, in 2012, of the brain of a living mouse with a 70 nm resolution.

John B. Pendry of Imperial College London designed artificial materials with properties not found in nature, and showed that such materials can be used to fabricate optical lenses with a resolution smaller than the wavelength of light, thus allowing imaging of objects with nanoscale dimensions.

The materials inspired by Pendry’s vision since the 1990s are called "metamaterials." They are composed by nanoscale metallic or dielectric elements, with a geometry that determines the optical properties. What is more, this geometry can be engineered to obtain the desired response to electric and magnetic fields. Pendry’s work also predicts metamaterials with a negative refractive index, a feature not found in nature, and resulting in dramatically different ways in which light “bends” as it traverses two different materials. Negative index materials were first experimentally demonstrated by David Smith in 2000.

Electric field patterns of microwave radiation with a frequency of 8.5 GHz as it propagates through a metamaterial cloak (the region between the two black circles) wrapped around a copper cylinder (inner black circle). (Science 314, 977-980 [2006])

In 1968, Victor Veselago predicted that a slab of material with negative refractive index can focus light. Building on this work, Pendry theoretically demonstrated in 2000 that such a slab not only can focus light, but also that it does so with sub-wavelength resolution, which cannot be achieved with standard lenses. Pendry named this slab of metamaterial a "perfect lens," because it can focus light of a given wavelength with unlimited resolution, if the index of refraction is exactly -1. This is due to the action of surface plasmons on both sides of the slab, as they amplify the components of the electromagnetic radiation - the so-called "near field" - that carries sub-wavelength information of the object. This is information that is normally lost in conventional optical lenses.

Lenses with sub-wavelength resolution built from silver metamaterials have been experimentally demonstrated in 2005 by two independent groups in Berkeley and Canterbury. Such devices can be applied in a vast range of technologies, from imaging of small biological structures such as DNA molecules, to manufacturing of electronic devices with smaller dimensions or optical data storage with increased information density.

The applications of metamaterials go beyond perfect lenses; they can also be used selectively to absorb different wavelengths of radiation, or to realize the "invisibility cloak," proposed by Pendry in the early 2000s. When shaped around an object, the metamaterial cloak can hide it from electromagnetic radiation, making it invisible to an observer. Cloacking is analogous to creating a mirage; light is bent in a way that our brain reconstructs. In 2006, Pendry, David Smith and co-workers demonstrated cloaking at microwave frequencies. Although cloaking has only been demonstrated for small objects and may not be the most promising application of metamaterials, the concept is interesting as it challenges our intuition and understanding of the behavior of light.

Professor Arne Brataas, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and chairman of the Kavli Nanoscience Prize Committee, said: “Thomas W. Ebbesen, Stefan W. Hell, and John B. Pendry have independently advanced our ability to 'see’ nano-scale objects using visible light. They have greatly advanced our understanding of nano-optics and the applications of their insights promise to have an enduring benefit to a wide range of fields from physics and chemistry to the biological and biomedical sciences”.

—Elisa De Ranieri and Fabio Pulizzi

Committee Members 

Kavli Prize Committee in Nanoscience:

Arne Brataas (Chair)
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Trondheim, Norway

Mildred Dresselhaus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts
– United States

Evelyn Hu
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts – United States

Klaus Kern
Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research
Stuttgart, Germany

Xie Yi
University of Science and Technology of China
Anhui, China


2014 Laureate in Nanoscience, Thomas Ebbesen

Thomas W. Ebbesen

University of Strasbourg


Thomas W. Ebbesen is a Norwegian physical chemist who has done research in nanoscience around the world. Read Full Bio
2014 Laureate in Nanoscience, Stefan Hell

Stefan W. Hell

Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry


Stefan W. Hell is a German physicist, director of the Max Plank Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. Born in Romania, he did his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate in 1990. Read Full Bio
2014 Laureate in Nanoscience, John Pendry

Sir John B. Pendry

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

John B. Pendry is the Chair in theoretical solid-state physics at Imperial College London, a position that he has held since 1981. A student of the University of Cambridge, he started his research career with a PhD in Physics in 1969, when he became a fellow of Downing College. Read Full Bio