STOCKHOLM - An Israeli scientist whose work was once ridiculed for being out of line with received thinking won the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for discovering different ways in which atoms could be packed together in solid materials.
The work of Daniel Shechtman, the winner of the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million), has opened the door for experiments in the use of the quasicrystals, which he discovered, in everything from diesel engines to frying pans.
Shechtman found in 1982 that atoms in crystals could be packed in a pattern which did not repeat itself — recalling the intricate mosaics of Arab art and flying in the face of the accepted view that patterns had to be repetitious.
"His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group," said the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which made the award.
"However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter," it added in a statement. "Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasicrystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines."
Shachtman, 70, reached by Israel Radio, said he was "excited" to be honored but declined to go into more detail about his work, promising a statement later in the day.
David Phillips, president of Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "Quasicrystals ... break all the rules of being a crystal at all. You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal each atom sits — they are very symmetrical.
"With quasicrystals, that symmetry is broken: there are regular patterns in the structure, but never repeating.
"They're quite beautiful, and have potential applications in protective alloys and coatings. The award of the Nobel Prize to Danny Shechtman is a celebration of fundamental research."
Noting the mathematically regular but infinitely varied patterns found in Arab and Persian art, the Nobel panel said:
"Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level.
"In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular — they follow mathematical rules — but they never repeat themselves."
Tel Aviv-born Shechtman is based at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, in the northern city of Haifa, but was working in the United States at the time of his major discovery.
Shechtman's research was initially dismissed by many scientists, since it conflicted with all the textbooks.
One of his fiercest critics was the famously argumentative Linus Pauling, himself double a Nobel laureate. But in 1992, the International Union of Crystallography altered its definition of what constitutes a crystal in the light of his work.
Over the last three decades, hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesized in laboratories and, two years ago, scientists reported the first naturally occurring quasicrystals in a mineral sample from Russia containing aluminum, copper and iron.
Astrid Graslund, professor of biophysics at Stockholm University and secretary for the Nobel Committee for chemistry, said: "The practical applications are as of now, not so many. But the material has unexpected properties. It is very strong, it has hardly any friction on the surface, it doesn't want to react with anything, they cannot oxidize and become rusty.
"But ... it is more a conceptual insight that these materials exist and we need to re-write all textbooks about crystals — it's a shift of the paradigm, which I think is most important."
Scientists had thought solid matter had only two states —crystalline, like diamonds and quartz, where atoms are arranged in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular order. Quasicrystalline matter offers a third possibility and opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry.
Quasicrystals have already been found in some types of durable steel, used in products such as razor blades and ultrathin needles for eye surgery.
Quasicrystals are very hard and are also bad conductors of heat and electricity, making them useful as so-called thermoelectric materials, which convert heat into electricity. They also have non-stick surfaces. Potential uses include surface coatings for frying pans, components for energy-saving light-emitting diodes and heat insulation in engines.
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Ben Hirschler in London and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Heavens)