PHILADELPHIA Alan G. MacDiarmid, Ph.D., Blanchard Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of three recipients of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sharing the honor are former Penn faculty member Alan J. Heeger, Ph.D., now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Hideki Shirakawa, Ph.D., of the University of Tsukuba in Japan.
The work underlying the award which showed that plastics can be made to conduct electricity was carried out at Penn in the late 1970s, when Drs. MacDiarmid and Heeger were both on the Penn faculty.
The holder of some 30 U.S. patents, Dr. MacDiarmid, 73, has been at Penn since 1955. Dr. Heeger, 64, was a physicist on the Penn faculty from 1962 to 1983 and directed the University Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter from 1974 to 1981.
"This is indeed a moment for great joy and celebration, as we join the Nobel committee in acknowledging the achievements of an outstanding researcher and faculty member," said Penn President Judith Rodin. "This pathbreaking research into onducting polymers,that is, plastics that can conduct electricity, introduced a new and completely unexpected phenomenon to the fields of chemistry and physics and has unleashed a flood of interdisciplinary studies which have continued unabated to this day.
"Alan MacDiarmid is a truly extraordinary scientist and we offer him and his colleagues our deepest and most heartfelt congratulations."
The Nobel Prize honors the trio 1977 discovery that plastics, or polymers, can be made to conduct electricity much like metals. This finding turned on its head the conventional wisdom that polymers could not conduct electricity, and unleashed a flurry of new research among physicists, chemists, and materials scientists worldwide.
Polymers are molecular chains with a regularly repeating structure. For a polymer to conduct electric current, it must consist alternately of single and double bonds between the carbon atoms. It must also be "doped," which means that electrons are removed (through oxidation) or introduced (through reduction). These "holes," or extra electrons, can move along the molecule, making it electrically conductive.
Drs. MacDiarmid, Heeger, and Shirakawa were responsible for the 1977 synthesis and the electrical and chemical doping of polyacetylene, the prototypical conducting polymer, and the rediscovery of polyaniline, now the foremost industrial conducting polymer.
Drs. MacDiarmid, Heeger, and Shirakawa have subsequently developed conductive polymers into a research field of great importance for chemists as well as physicists. The area has also yielded important practical applications. Conductive plastics are used in, or are being developed industrially for anti-static substances for photographic film, shields for computer screen against electromagnetic radiation and for "smart" windows that can exclude sunlight. In addition, semi-conductive polymers have recently been developed in light-emitting diodes (LEDs), solar cells and as displays in mobile telephones and mini-format television screens.
Research on conductive polymers has also fueled the rapid development of molecular electronics. In the future scientists may be able to produce transistors and other electronic components consisting of individual molecules, dramatically increasing the speed and reducing the size of computers: a computer corresponding to the laptops we now carry around would suddenly fit inside a wristwatch.
Born in Masterton, New Zealand, Dr. MacDiarmid is author or co-author of more than 600 research papers. He holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from the University of New Zealand and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Cambridge in England.