Naomi Halas named University Professor

Nanophotonics pioneer earns university’s highest academic title

Naomi Halas

Rice University has promoted Naomi Halas to University Professor, the institution’s highest academic rank. She becomes only the 10th person and second woman to earn the title in Rice’s 111-year history.

Rice University Professor Naomi Halas
Naomi Halas (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

An engineer, chemist, physicist and pioneer in the field of nanophotonics, Halas is the only member of Rice’s faculty elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering for research done entirely at Rice. She joined the university in 1989 following her time at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and leads one of Rice’s largest interdisciplinary institutes, the Smalley-Curl Institute, and one of its largest research groups. Halas held joint appointments in five departments prior to being named University Professor, an at-large appointment that allows her to teach in any academic department.

“I have worked with Naomi for several years and can’t think of anyone more deserving of the title University Professor,” said Rice President Reginald DesRoches. “Naomi is the epitome of a scholar. She is an accomplished researcher, innovator, teacher and mentor. More importantly, she is a fervent seeker of transformational knowledge, which is evident in her many accomplishments throughout her career at Rice.”

Halas was in the first wave of faculty recruited to Rice by the late Richard Smalley to explore the frontiers of nanotechnology. Her first appointment was in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, but she holds degrees in both chemistry and physics. Her research group uses techniques from those disciplines and others to study how light interacts with nanoparticles, tiny bits of matter measuring just a few billionths of a meter.

For instance, when light strikes the surface of a metal nanoparticle, it can excite waves of electrons called plasmons. If the frequency of neighboring plasmons match, they can resonate like harmonious musical notes, reinforcing one another. In the mid-1990s, Halas invented gold nanoshells, the first nanoparticles with tunable plasmonic resonances.

In form, nanoshells resemble malted milk balls, but their outer coating is gold instead of chocolate and their center is a sphere of glass. By varying the size of the nonconductive core and the thickness of the outer shell, Halas showed she could tune nanoshells to interact with specific wavelengths of visible light or nonvisible radiation.

Around 2000, Halas and bioengineer Jennifer West, then at Rice and now dean of engineering at the University of Virginia, invented a method of destroying cancer cells by heating nanoshells with a low-power, near-infrared laser that could pass harmlessly through healthy tissue. The technology cleared a major clinical milestone with the 2019 publication of the first clinical results for the treatment of prostate cancer. The study found that one year after completing treatment, 13 of the first 15 patients in the trial had no detectable signs of cancer on follow-up biopsies or MRIs.

Halas has developed light-activated nanoparticles for applications as wide ranging as off-grid water treatment, optoelectronics, chemical sensing, solar-powered distillation, molecular sensing, biomimetic photodetection, self-camouflaging metamaterials and off-grid solar-powered sterilization.

“Naomi is a superstar whose work has had far-reaching impacts beyond engineering,” said Luay Nakhleh, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering. “It is befitting to have her in a position that supersedes the boundaries of schools and disciplines. She sets a great example to all faculty in terms of excellence in research, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.”

In 2011, Halas, Peter Nordlander and others discovered plasmonic particles that give off short-lived, high-energy electrons called “hot carriers.” They showed in 2016 that hot-carrier generators could be married with catalytic particles to produce “antenna-reactors.”

The pace of chemical reactions typically increases with temperature. Chemical producers often apply heat on an industrial scale to speed production, but raising the temperature of large reaction vessels at chemical plants requires enormous energy. Materials called catalysts can also hurry the pace of reactions without themselves reacting, and chemical makers often use catalysts in concert with heat.

Antenna-reactor catalysts are fundamentally different because they need not be heated. They harvest energy from light and insert it precisely where it is needed to drive reactions, resulting in record-high efficiencies at remarkably low temperatures.

Halas, Nordlander and colleagues have demonstrated antenna-reactor catalysts for ethylene and syngas production, the splitting of ammonia to produce hydrogen fuel and for breaking apart pollutants like “forever chemicals” and hydrogen sulfide.

The work garnered Halas and Nordlander the prestigious 2022 Eni Energy Transition Award in August. And in a paper published in Science in November, they and colleagues demonstrated a scalable antenna-reactor catalyst made solely of inexpensive raw materials that can efficiently convert ammonia into clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

“Naomi is world-renowned in her field and has demonstrated tremendous service and leadership at all levels here at Rice,” said Rice Provost Amy Dittmar. “Her contributions to the university and to the world have been profoundly impactful. We are lucky to have Naomi at Rice and in Houston. I look forward to seeing her many accomplishments ahead.”

Halas has authored more than 380 refereed publications, and her work has been cited more than 117,000 times. She also co-founded two companies: Nanospectra Biosciences, which she co-founded with West, for the development of localized cancer therapeutics, and Syzygy Plasmonics, co-founded with Nordlander, for the development of low-cost, light-driven hydrogen production.

Halas was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, and at the time of her election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2014 was one of only 12 women to earn the dual honor. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Inventors and is a fellow of nine professional societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Materials Research Society, the Optical Society, the American Physical Society, the International Society for Optical Engineering and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Rice’s other University Professors are physicist and former White House science adviser Neal Lane, former Rice President David Leebron, bioengineer and global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, mathematician Richard Tapia and computer scientist Moshe Vardi. Four others have died: Nobel laureate chemists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, former Rice President Malcolm Gillis and computer scientist Ken Kennedy '67, the only Rice alumnus to hold the rank.

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CAPTION: Naomi Halas (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

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Rice lab’s catalyst could be key for hydrogen economy – Nov. 24, 2022

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 4,240 undergraduates and 3,972 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.