Fri, Jan 27, 2017 - Page 4 News List

Chemist Andrew Holmes named to Order of Australia

The Guardian

An Australian chemist who stumbled across a light-emitting plastic that could revolutionize solar technology and create printable soccer-field-sized televisions, says his appointment as a companion of the Order of Australia should be seen as an award for all Australian scientists.

Andrew Holmes is a professor at the Bio21 Institute and the University of Melbourne and president of the Australian Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said of the award. “I feel it’s wonderful to have the science community recognized, even if it’s through just one person. I take it as a recognition of science in Australia.”

He said the most important role of the academy was “communicating our passion and our feeling for science to everyone in the community.”

For much of his career he has, in one way or another, been discovering ways of recreating in the laboratory — or in a factory — processes found in nature.

After contributing to the groundbreaking work that allowed scientists to produce vitamin B12 in the lab rather than extracting it from plants, Holmes was working on reproducing a poison found on the skin of a Colombian frog.

When his team hit a roadblock making part of that molecule, they tried to get around it by replacing that part with a similar chemical produced by seaweed.

“In making that molecule, one of the students found that what he made, standing in the light on the bench, turned from colorless to this beautiful purple-red crystalline material,” Holmes said.

Holmes took the material to a colleague, who said Holmes had made a brand-new polymer that could potentially have interesting optical applications.

What he found was a plastic material that behaved a bit like a metal and would lead to the development of polymer OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) — part of a class of materials that have now revolutionized digital electronics.

Other types of OLEDs not using plastics are now widely used in commercial televisions and some companies are pursuing the plastic OLEDs that Holmes’s work led to for the televisions of the future.

Holmes’ technology allows bright and colorful displays to be produced that can be flexible and produced in a kind of printing process using a machine that works similarly to an ink-jet printer.

“The polymer technology had the advantage of being able to do huge areas; it’s just a big printing job essentially,” he said. “In principle you should be able to print a football field with the polymer technology.”

It occurred to Holmes that while the plastic technology he created could take electricity and produce light, the reverse process could be e ven more useful. If it could be used to take light and produce electricity, he would have a new type of solar cell — and one that could be printed quickly onto large areas.

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