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Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Plastics earn chemistry Nobel
The scientists who saw that plastic could be made to be a conductor of electricity were honoured with a Nobel Prize on Tuesday.

Alan Heeger and Alan MacDiarmid of the US and Hideki Shirakawa of Japan all contributed to the advance that has led to big improvements in film, TV screens and windows, and looks likely to play a major role in the development of new electronic devices.

The laureates will each receive a share of the $915,000 prize for the "discovery and development of conductive polymers", said the citation from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the body which decides who should get the famous Nobel Prizes.

Heeger, 64, is a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, while MacDiarmid, 73, is a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Shirakawa, 64, is a professor of chemistry at the University of Tsukuba in Japan.

'Smart' windows

Plastic is usually thought of as an insulator and is used to insulate copper wires in ordinary electric cables. But Heeger, MacDiarmid and Shirakawa showed that plastics, or polymers, could be made electrically conductive with the right modifications.

This requires the synthesis of a molecule that has alternately single and double bonds in its backbone of carbon atoms. The molecule must also be "doped", which means that electrons are removed (through oxidation) or introduced (through reduction).

These "holes" or extra electrons can then move along the molecule, making it electrically conductive.

The scientists' work has important practical uses, as conductive plastics can be used for anti-static substances for photographic film, shields for computer screens against electromagnetic radiation, and "smart" windows that can exclude sunlight.

They can also be used for solar cells, mobile phone displays and mini-format television screens.

King of Sweden

The citation said the discovery would also lead to rapid developments in the field of molecular electronics that would "dramatically increase the speed and reduce the size of our computers".

"In the future, we will be able to produce transistors and other electronic components consisting of individual molecules," it said.

"A computer corresponding to what we now carry around in our bags would suddenly fit inside a watch."

The scientists will receive their prize from the King of Sweden at an official ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December.

The date is the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the Nobel Prizes' creator, Swedish scholar and inventor Alfred Nobel.

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09 Oct 00 | Health
Brain pioneers share Nobel prize
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