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  • Ultrafast Imaging Pioneer Wins Priestley Medal
Apr 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif., April 4, 2011 — Ahmed H. Zewail has been awarded the 2011 Priestley Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society.

Zewail, who is a Nobel laureate in chemistry and the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, is being honored for developing "ultrafast-motion" imaging for the study of fundamental processes in chemistry, biology and materials science. His work is providing deep new insights into materials behavior and biological functions that determine health and disease.

“This work is changing not only what we know, but also how we think about the interplay of structure, dynamics and function in molecular systems,” said David A. Tirrell, also of Caltech. He added that the advances made by Zewail’s group “are yielding qualitatively new insights into the atomic and molecular origins of complex chemical, physical and biological behavior."

Zewail pioneered femtochemistry, the study of ultrafast chemical processes on the femtosecond timescale using special lasers. Some have described his pioneering laser technique as the world's fastest camera. It can capture frames of the ultrafast motion of atoms and molecules as they undergo the reactions that produce gasoline, plastics and medicines and the processes that make life possible.

For hundreds of years, scientists believed it was impossible to view the ultrafast motion of chemical reactions. But Zewail thought otherwise. In the late 1980s, he performed a series of experiments that provided the first detailed glimpses of chemical reactions in motion. He did this using a high-speed "camera," based on laser technology, with flashes of light that each lasted only some millionth of a billionth of a second. This allowed him to "freeze" the motion of molecules as they reacted with each other, much like rapid flashes of light freeze the motion of a spinning fan blade. For the first time, scientists could actually see chemical reactions in the process of unfolding.

Since the Nobel Prize, he and his group have developed a new field dubbed 4-D electron microscopy. The methodology enables visualization of materials and biological cells with unprecedented resolutions in both space and time. In recent Science and Nature papers, Zewail and colleagues reported the achievement of 4-D tomography and near-field imaging and demonstrated the methodology for visualization of “nanomachines” at work and evanescent bacterium cells. The development is termed by scientists in the field as revolutionary for materials and biological sciences.

Potential applications of 4-D imaging include new materials for use in smaller, more powerful electronic devices; improved understanding of the function of catalysts (substances that speed up chemical reactions) used for making new products; and insights into function of the retina.

Zewail was born in Egypt in 1946. He studied at the University of Alexandria and in 1974 earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. After two years at the University of California, Berkeley, he was employed at Caltech, where he currently is a chair professor and director of the Moore Foundation’s Center for Physical Biology. He also serves as a dedicated spokesman for science education. He is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology. Zewail travels the world lecturing on what he describes as “the beauty and critical role of science in our lives.”

The Priestley Medal is an annual award named for Joseph Priestley, who reported the discovery of oxygen in 1774. Since 1923, the ACS has recognized groundbreaking chemists with the award.

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