If Nobel Prize winner Alan G. MacDiarmid's dreams come true, bar codes on grocery items will be replaced with plastic electronic chips that cost a penny to make. To check out, you will just push your full cart past a scanner, which tallies the price of all the items instantly.
MacDiarmid also visualizes huge fields of cheap solar cells, removing humidity from the air and providing nearly free water to desert areas.
MacDiarmid and two other men, Hideki Shirakawa and Alan Heeger, won the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing electrically conductive polymers. The Society of Plastics Engineers gave MacDiarmid its top honor, the International Award, at last year's Annual Technical Conference, but he was unable to attend. He came to Antec 2002 in San Francisco and gave the keynote speech May 6.
Most polymers act as insulators, blocking electric current. But at Antec, about 600 audience members took a trip into MacDiarmid's specialized world of polymers that conduct electricity. He called organic polymers that have the electronic characteristics of metal a ``completely new area, which will be exploited tremendously in the next few decades.''
``I feel very strongly that, when we look across at history, we see that we've been through the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and into the Age of Plastics. The 21st century is the Age of Plastics,'' said MacDiarmid, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
MacDiarmid walked the audience through the process of ``doping'' with an additive to make a type of plastic conduct electricity. Comparing the polymer with a cake mix, he said doping happens when you add one drop of food coloring and it spreads throughout the entire mix. Doping can take an organic polymer up to the conductivity level of copper, he said.
Normally, electrons in a polymer are so tightly bound together, they cannot move, he said. But doping can free up 90 percent of the electrons, allowing them to move around.
Conductive polymers were introduced in the 1970s. They made possible a wide range of products, including rechargeable batteries, light-emitting diodes, rechargeable batteries and computer breakthroughs such as electromagnetic interference shielding and anti-static dissipation.
Some of the polymers used include polyacetylene and polyaniline. Today MacDiarmid is concentrating on polyaniline.
He said low-cost plastic chips, like those in the grocery-store example, could fuel a proliferation of cheap, throwaway electronic products in the next decade. ``It costs one U.S. cent and you use it once, then throw it away,'' he said.
The plastic chips will not replace traditional materials such as silicon or copper. They react too slowly to be used in television sets. But MacDiarmid said scientists should not restrict their thinking. ``We are living in an age of non-conventional thinking,'' he said. ``What we can do is cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, throwaway, throwaway, throwaway.''
He showed a new idea: That a standard office printer can be used to fashion an electronic circuit onto a plastic transparency, and a dispersion material can be applied. The toner lines insulate around the conductive base. The result: a cheap, easy-to-make electronic device.
MacDiarmid gave other examples: plastic chips that can track the whereabouts of cattle to track foot-and-mouth disease, chips on your office filing systems, a chip in your wallet or car keys to help you find them when they are misplaced.
Responding to an audience question, MacDiarmid said the current crop of electrically conductive polymers do not have good thermal conductivity, so they are not melt-processible. Much more development work has gone into spinning the polymers into fibers and wire.
During his speech, MacDiarmid stood by an overhead projector. He slid well-worn pieces of paper around chemical diagrams marked with handwritten notes, to show how the polymers change. No PowerPoint presentation for this guy. Instead, Antec attendees viewed some of the same transparencies he used for his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.