Alan Graham MacDiarmid was born in Masterton, New Zealand, in 1927.
His interest in chemistry began as a boy when he found one of his father’s old chemistry textbooks dating back to the late 1800s. Although much of it confused him, it ignited within him a burning curiosity. Alan then discovered chemistry books in the local library and carried out most of the experiments in them. Later, when a ‘lab boy’ at the University of Victoria, he was asked to prepare some S4N4 (tetrasulfur tetranitride). The beauty of its bright orange colour made an impression on him and he later did his MSc thesis on the chemistry of these crystals. This was to become a key factor that later led to his discovery and work on conducting polymers.
Alan graduated at a time when communication between universities of the world was difficult and New Zealand universities still had limited options. To follow his interests, Alan needed to go abroad. After completing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, a New Zealand scholarship enabled him to study for a second PhD at Cambridge University in England.
Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the next maximum extent.Alan MacDiarmid
Having graduated to a high level in chemistry, Alan needed to stay in universities that were internationally recognised for their research in his field. He obtained a position at the University of Pennsylvania where he lived and worked for 45 years. It was here that he was able to carry out his work on conducting polymers. Although he lived in the United States, Alan always kept his links with New Zealand universities. In time, as communication and travel became easier, he made frequent visits back to New Zealand, strengthening ties with New Zealand science researchers.
As more universities became internationally recognised and with the development of the internet, collaboration between researchers in different universities and countries became common. The formation of the MacDiarmid Institute in 2002, based at Victoria University in Wellington, involved researchers from several New Zealand universities and Crown research institutes. Alan was involved with many New Zealand universities and became a frequent traveller to universities all over the world, sharing and collaborating in research. He developed a passion for teaching and stimulating young inquiring minds, which remained with him until he died.
The discovery of conducting polymers was, to some degree, serendipitous. In 1975, Alan was asked by Alan Heegar, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, to join him in making the sulfur nitride conducting polymer (SN)x. This was because Heegar knew that Alan had made the precursor S4N4 during his MSc work in New Zealand. In the same year, Alan met Hideki Shirakawa at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. He showed Shirakawa the (SN)x compound, and Shirakawa showed Alan a sample of silvery polyacetylene (CH)x. The (CH)x had been produced because of a language misunderstanding between Shirakawa and his foreign PhD student. The student had added a catalyst 1000 times more concentrated than Shirakawa had told him. The result was a silvery form of conducting polyacetylene. Alan asked Shirakawa to come and work with him at the University of Pennsylvania for a year to develop the conducting polymer. There, they developed a doping method (adding other substances to increase electron movement) that increased its conductivity many millions of times. They then collaborated with Heegar who was well versed in conducting materials to further refine conducting polymers.
In 2000, Alan MacDiarmid, Alan Heegar and Hideki Shirakawa were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of conductive polymers (though the discovery part has been contested because of earlier reports, such as Bolto and Weiss in 1963).
The MacDiarmid, Heegar and Shirakawa finding (reported in 1976) caused a flood of work in conducting polymers – 25 years later, this resulted in the development of many new technologies using conducting polymers, such as flat-screen video displays, new solar cells, sensors, medical implants and flexible – even wearable – electronic circuitry.
The timeline below lets you see aspects of Alan's life and work, and how his findings changed scientific thinking. A full timeline transcript is here.