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Mc Diarmid A.

posted May 24, 2015, 1:57 AM by Upali Salpadoru   [ updated Jul 20, 2019, 9:13 PM ]

Alan Mc Diarmid

                                1927 -2007

  "Three chemists that disproved Chemistry."  

        Since Plastic was synthesized in 1862, they  were insulators. 

   Three scientists disproved this. Alan was one.

  Their achievement in making a conducting polymer has revolutionised the electronic industry.

Your computers, mobile phones could not have been that smarter if not for them.


Date of Birth: 14th April.


Fig.1 They shared the Noble Prize for Chemistry in 2000.

 Alan from New Zealand, Hideki Shirakawa, from Japan and  and Alan  Heeger from US.

This is the story of Alan Mc Diarmid, the New Zealand born chemist.


Archibald Campbell Mac Diarmid, a marine engineer and his wife, Ruby Noel Willis Graham came from New Plymouth to Masterton. Once Archie’s family was holidaying at Rutherford’s farm at Pungarehu on the Taranaki coast. Archie has recalled being impressed that 21-year-old Ernest Rutherford had made 28 gallons of rhubarb wine. He would have never dreamt that this youngster and one of his, yet to be born, sons would ever become Noble Laureates.


Mr.Archibald brought his family to Masterton from NewPlymouth and started working as the chief engineer at Waingawa freezing works.


Alan was born as the fifth child of the family. At the time, Archie was un-employed. They rented out a house in Lower Hutt as the two elder children started working in the capitol. He found a casual job at a filling station to supplement the pension, yet they were struggling in poverty. It was the time of great depression.

1932 Age 5 Yrs.

 Alan attended Primary school in bare feet. His soles were badly affected. It was the custom at the time to dip their feet in cow dung and walk in order to avoid frost bite. In spite of the difficult times, his parents kept the family united. Even if they were short of food, they invited less fortunate people to meals.

On such occasions, my older brothers and sister would frequently remind me and my younger sister at meals not to ask for more food by saying to us out loud at the table, ‘FHB,’ which meant, ‘Family Hold Back,’ which meant ‘Don't eat too much!” 

1937   Age 10Yrs.

His interest for chemistry has been kindled at this age, by one of his father’s chemistry books. Once when he cycled to the public library, he found a brand new blue book, ‘ The Boy Chemist’   which  became his bible.

Here’s how he describes his early life in his autobiography. “I attended a two-room school in Keri-Keri, where most of my school chums were Maori boys and girls from whom I learned so much. …I had a pre-school job, delivering milk on my bicycle for Mr. Bradley, who had a few cows in a nearby paddock. My mother was superb - she would get up with me while it was still dark to make me hot tea to send me on my way”.

Fig. 2. Alan on his bicycle. 1939      Fig. 3. Alan at the age of 12 yrs. 

1942 Age 15 Yrs.

He was admitted to ‘Hutt Valley High School’. As he could no longer do the early morning milk runs, he started delivering the newspaper, “Evening Post” after school. His farther used to say, An ‘A’ grade in a class is not a sign of success. Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the maximum extent”.

1943  Age 16 Yrs.

Alan passed the University of New Zealand's University, now Victoria University, Entrance Exam and its Medical Preliminary Exam.

1944  Age 17Yrs.

“Since the age of 17 I have supported myself financially, assisted later only by scholarships and fellowships for which I am most grateful.”

He obtained a job as a ‘lab boy’ in the chemistry Department at Victoria University College. There he continued his studies in chemistry and mathematics as a part time student. To help make ends meet he worked as the janitor at Weir House, the university hostel for men. He says, “that period was one of the most enjoyable and maturing times of my life. I made many good friends amongst the other ninety residents and still keeps in close contact with some”

1947  Age 20Yrs.

After completing his B.Sc, he got a position as a demonstrator.

1949  22Yrs.

He got an article published in the prestigious science magazine, ‘Nature’.

1950  23 Yrs.

On one occasion Alan was asked to prepare some S4N4-, which he did. The beauty of bright orange crystals was to have a profound effect on his future. He later explained his early inspiration for the research: “It really stems from the fact that I like colour. I like pretty things.”

1951 Age 24Yrs.

He earned the MSc gaining  first class honours, and won a full bright scholarship  for a PhD to the University of Wisconsin.

He studied complex metal cyanides under Prof. Norris Hall. He became the president of the International Club, the largest student union there. He met his future bride at a club dance.

1952  Age 25Yrs.

He obtained the M.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin.

1953    Age 26Yrs.

On completion of his  PhD he received a 'shell graduate scholarship' to study at Sidney Sussex College ,Cambridge in England.

1954 Age 27Yrs.

At the Sussex College chapel Alan married Marian Mathieu, whom he had first met at the University of Wisconsin.

1955    Age 28Yrs.

Alan achieved a PhD over again. After a short period of teaching at St Andrews in Scotland he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania

My study in Philadelphia has a line, which reads, ‘I am a very lucky person and the harder I worked the luckier I seem to be"!

1975  Age 48 Yrs.

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.

“I had the good fortune to meet my future friend and colleague, Professor Alan J. Heeger, Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He informed me that Professor Mort Labes,   at Temple University had published a paper on a highly conducting material. He gave me the particulars; I told him that I had made the precursor to that during my M.Sc. thesis work in New Zealand. He asked me if I could make a sample. We were ultimately successful, and co-published many papers together, on this conducting polymer"

"When I was a Visiting  Kyoto University in Japan, I met  Professor Hideki Shirakawa. After a lecture at the  Tokyo Institute of Technology we met over a cup of green tea. When I was showing a sample of golden crystals we had made, he showed me a sample of his silvery crystals.”

"Dr. Shirakawa had been polymerizing ordinary acetylene welding gas using a Ziegler-Natta catalyst and had been obtaining a rather uninteresting black-brown powder. He requested one of his foreign students to use a milimolar solution of the catalyst in the experiment. Due to a misunderstanding of the Japanese language he had used a molar solution instead. When Shirakawa went to the laboratory, instead of the black powder there were lumps of silvery-pinkish jelly floating around. This then started Shirakawa investigating this silvery form of polyacetylene."

Mr. Mac Diarmid invited Shirakawa to his University and they jointly conducted experiments to make the silvery poly acetylene purer so that it may conduct better. However, they found that the purer they made the substance; the lower was its conductivity! Adding bromine to the golden material, increased its conductivity tenfold, perhaps the impurity in the polyacetylene was acting as a dopant and was actually increasing the conductivity of the polyacetylene, rather than decreasing it. '

“We therefore decided to add some bromine to the silvery films and immediately, within a few minutes at room temperature, the conductivity increased many millions of times. We then collaborated with my colleague, Professor Alan Heeger, who was well-versed in the physics of conducting materials. The rest is history! “

1977 Age 50Yrs.

He published his results.

1990  Age 63Yrs.

Demise of Alan’s wife Marian. They were married for 36 Yrs. And had four children: three girls and a boy.

1991  Age 64Yrs.

Miss. Gayl Gentile became his partner.

A Plastic Battery.

One of Alan’s students placed two strips of polyacetylene in a solution containing the doping ions and passed an electric current from strip to strip. The positive ions migrated to one strip and the negative ions to the other. But when the current source was removed, the charge remained stored in the polyacetylene polymer. This stored charge could then be discharged if an electrical load was connected between the two strips; just as in a normal battery In a car battery or in any other accumulator the metal plates undergo chemical changes. In a plastic battery it is not so; only the stored ions of the solution move.  So these batteries should have a longer life time.

2000  Age 72 Yrs.

He shared the Chemistry Nobel prize with Hideki Shirakawa and Alan J. Heeger.

“I am a very lucky person and the harder I work the luckier I seem to be.”



Fig. 4. Alan  his Nobel Prize from His Majesty the King .

The invention of electrical conducting plastics and plastic batteries can be considered as the greatest achievement in the use of electrical energy since Faraday discovered the Electro Magnetic Generator.