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Analytical Chemistry

Peter Debye Award In Physical Chemistry

by Alexander H. Tullo
January 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Credit: Steve Gladfelter/Stanford
William E. (W. E.) Moerner, Stanford University chemistry professor.
Credit: Steve Gladfelter/Stanford

Sponsored by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

The contributions of William E. Moerner to spectroscopy cannot be overstated. Moerner, a Stanford University chemistry professor, was the first to optically detect a single molecule in condensed matter. This 1989 breakthrough opened a whole new field of molecular spectroscopy, one that has led to discoveries not only in physics and chemistry, but also in biology.

Moerner’s pioneering frequency modulation experiment on single pentacene molecules in p-terphenyl led the way to the now almost routine single-molecule fluorescence excitation method,” says James L. Skinner, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Moerner was a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Center at the time. IBM was looking to devise a system of frequency domain optical storage using spectral hole burning. “I was interested in the fundamental limits of this process,” Moerner recalls. “What is the smallest spectral hole you can make? This was in the glory years of industrial research labs, when scientists could be told to go study the most interesting science they could.”

To Moerner, that meant pushing spectroscopy to the single-molecule limit. And though others thought it would be impossible to detect such a small signal, previous experiments led Moerner to believe that it could be done.

Moerner and his postdoc earlier detected the “spectral roughness” that was predicted to appear on the spectral absorption line of molecules in solids. They found that the intensity of that spectral roughness grew in proportion to the square root of the number of molecules being excited. This told Moerner that the detection of a single molecule was within reach. It was only a matter of keeping the sensitivity of the apparatus high enough and the background noise of the sample low enough to capture the faint response of a single molecule.

The research was immediately influential. “Many labs around the world jumped into the field after the initial experiment,” Moerner says. And these scientists were eager to make progress. Moerner’s original detection was done at cryogenic temperatures, but by the mid-1990s, the field had moved to room-temperature experimentation. In the late 1990s, Moerner’s group started working with biological systems.

In the mid-2000s, researchers became interested in using single-molecule emitters to improve resolution and define structures beyond the optical diffraction limit. Moerner says about half of his laboratory is engaged in this work. For example, one of his postdocs recently imaged the protein aggregates in cells that, for reasons that are still elusive, are the culprits behind Huntington’s disease. In another thrust, his students and postdocs are imaging previously unobservable three-dimensional protein superstructures that form in tiny bacterial cells.

Moerner, 59, earned bachelor’s degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis in 1975. He earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University in 1982. He joined the faculty of Stanford in 1998.

Among other honors, Moerner won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 2008 and the Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics in 2009.

Moerner will present the award address before the ACS Division of Physical Chemistry.


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