Louis E. Brus, the son of an insurance salesman, had to juggle his early passion for physical chemistry with learning the basics of warfare at sea as he entered Rice University in Houston, Texas on a Naval Reserves Officer Training Corps scholarship. Upon graduating in 1965, he was commissioned as a junior officer, but thankfully his superiors agreed to a four-year leave of absence to allow him to carry out post-graduate research. He began his doctoral studies at Columbia University, New York, and worked on his thesis with mentor Richard Bersohn on the photodissociation of sodium iodide vapour.
After receiving his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1969, Brus entered the Navy as a lieutenant and served as a scientific staff officer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. He and his colleagues studied which gases and reactions produced the best conditions for the use of infrared chemical lasers. After leaving to work at the company AT&T Bell Laboratories, Brus’ focus shifted to gaining a fundamental understanding of energy flows in solids, specifically how excited electronic energy becomes vibrational and heat energy over time.
The work on colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals, or quantum dots, that led to his being recognized as one of the leading researchers in the field of nanoscience began in the early 1980s when he began studying liquids at room temperature. A key discovery came in 1983, when he noticed how conductivity changed with the particle size of materials. Brus returned to Columbia University as a professor in 1996. His fundamental research contributions have been recognized in recent years with the Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics from the American Physical Society in 2001, election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and the 2005 Chemistry of Materials Prize from the American Chemical Society.