Chemistry alum awarded Nobel Prize

October 11, 2000 By Brian Mattmiller

Alan Graham MacDiarmid, a chemistry masters and Ph.D graduate of UW–Madison, is co-winner of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discoveries of polymers that conduct electricity.

MacDiarmid, 73, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is one of three Nobel laureates in chemistry this year. He will share the prize with Alan Heeger of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Hideki Shirakawa of the University of Tsukuba in Japan.

All three are pioneers in the discovery and development of conducting polymers, also know as “synthetic metals.” The fact that some plastics conduct electricity was a surprising discovery to scientists, since it’s normally one of the most common insulating materials for electrical wires.

These materials have a wide range of potential applications, including use in rechargeable batteries, corrosion inhibition, flexible transistors, anti-static materials and stealth applications. Conductive plastics are currently being used in products such as shields that screen computers from electromagnetic radiation, “smart” windows that exclude sunlight, and other electronics devices.

MacDiarmid earned his master’s degree in 1952 and Ph.D in 1953 from UW–Madison’s chemistry department, where he majored in inorganic chemistry and minored in analytical chemistry. Robert West, an emeritus professor of chemistry at UW–Madison, is a personal friend of MacDiarmid and says he is “delighted” by the news. “I think this is very appropriate recognition of this whole scientific area, as well as a great honor for Alan,” West says.

West added he thought the honor might have come as a surprise to MacDiarmid, since Nobels in chemistry have traditionally gone to biochemists who work on human medicine applications.

The major discoveries in this field were made in the mid to late 1970s, when the three Nobel winners began collaborating on different synthetic-metal discoveries. Their work generated a flurry of research interest among both chemists and physicists.

MacDiarmid, a New Zealand native, also is a Ph.D. graduate of the University of Cambridge in England in 1955. He joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1956.