Alan G. MacDiarmid, one of the three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2000 for their discovery that plastic can be made electrically conductive, died Tuesday at his home in suburban Philadelphia. He was 79.
MacDiarmid had been in failing health with myelodysplastic syndrome, a leukemia-like disease, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania. Weakened from the disease, MacDiarmid fell down a flight of stairs at his Drexel Hill home Tuesday morning and was taken to Delaware County Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the newspaper said.
MacDiarmid shared the chemistry prize with Alan Heeger, then a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania who is now at UC Santa Barbara, and Hideki Shirakawa of Tsukuba University in Japan.
In 1977, they made the fundamental discovery that a modified form of plastic could conduct electricity. The scientists found a way, essentially, to convert plastic into metal so that electrons would move freely through it. Unlike metal, though, plastic is flexible and amenable to manipulation for particular tasks.
"Prior to 1977, the only uses for plastics were structural: Styrofoam cups, nylons, polyester for clothes," Arthur Epstein, a physicist and chemist at Ohio State University, told The Times at the time the Nobel was awarded. Plastic was, "from the point of view of electrical properties, a dud."
The plastic discovered by the three scientists has been anything but a dud and has a wide range of uses, including the visual displays on cellphones.
The discovery stemmed from an accident in Shirakawa's laboratory at Tsukuba University north of Tokyo when a researcher mixed 1,000 times too much of a chemical into an experiment. Instead of producing a black powdery polymer called polyacetylene, the experiment produced a silvery film.
MacDiarmid, who was a visiting professor at the University of Kyoto, heard about the Tsukuba laboratory accident while having tea with Shirakawa and was intrigued. He and Heeger had also made silvery films using sulfur nitride.
MacDiarmid invited Shirakawa to return with him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught and did research, to work on the problem. The three scientists worked with the film and oxidized it in various ways until they came up with a polymer that was extremely conductive.
The son of an engineer, MacDiarmid was born in Masterton, New Zealand, on April 14, 1927. The family moved to an area near Wellington during the Depression, where his father hoped to find work. He didn't for several years, and the family struggled. MacDiarmid would later recall that as the youngest child, he was the last one in the children's communal bath on Saturday nights.
He became interested in chemistry as a boy after reading one of his father's books on the subject. He further advanced his interest when he discovered a book called "The Boy Chemist" on a trip to a public library. He would later recall checking out the book constantly for a year in order to complete all the experiments.
Since money was scarce, MacDiarmid worked his way through school delivering milk and newspapers. At 16, he took a job as a "lab boy" at Victoria University College in Wellington, cleaning glassware and mopping floors.
After completing his bachelor's and master's degrees there, he earned a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where he completed his doctorate. He earned another doctorate at Cambridge University in England.
He taught briefly at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland before becoming a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent 47 years there before joining the faculty of the University of Texas, Dallas, in 2002.
The holder of more than 30 U.S. patents, MacDiarmid wrote more than 600 research papers.
He is survived by his wife, Gayle Gentile; three daughters and a son from his marriage to the former Marian Mathieu, who died in 1990; a sister; two brothers; and nine grandchildren.