Hideki Shirakawa of Japan and Americans Alan Heeger and Alan MacDiarmid have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery that some plastics can conduct electricity. Shirakawa, 64, a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, said the honor came as a total surprise.
“I did not expect it, and I was indeed surprised. I think it carries weight in society, and I feel a sense of responsibility,” the scholar told reporters at his home in Yokohama’s Aoba Ward Wednesday morning.
“I believe I have worked in an area that will show development in the years ahead, but I thought my work itself is a thing of the past that no longer deserves a Nobel Prize,” he said. Shirakawa refused to meet with the press Tuesday night, saying he had heard nothing from Sweden.
He is the ninth Japanese to win a Nobel Prize and the second to get one in chemistry after Kenichi Fukui won the award in 1981. Shirakawa is the first Japanese to win a Nobel Prize since Kenzaburo Oe won the award for literature in 1994.
Shirakawa will share the 9 million kronor ($915,000) prize for the discovery and development of conductive polymers with Heeger, 64, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and MacDiarmid, 73, of the University of Pennsylvania.
The three are expected to attend an award ceremony scheduled for Dec. 10 in Stockholm.
They collaborated in the discovery and development of conductive polymers, which have been put to practical uses in plastic batteries and antistatic additives for photographic film.
Conductive polymers have also been used in the development of new color video and television screens.
Through their research, the three men found “that a thin film of polyacetylene could be oxidized with iodine vapor, increasing its electrical conductivity a billion times,” according to the citation.
Shirakawa indicated that his research in conductive polymers demonstrated that smaller semiconductors can be developed, at a time when silicon is reaching its limit in creating small microchips.
“I was probably credited for the fact that we have begun to see some utility” for conductive polymers, said Shirakawa, who was the first in the world to succeed in synthesizing conductive polymers.
“It is a theme of research that has been wound up in a sense for me, but I think it is good if a younger generation continues to explore it,” he said.
On the award itself, he said: “I would like to think of it as a material science award. While physics and chemistry are strictly separated as science, fusing the two was necessary to develop new materials.”
Shirakawa developed polyacetylene, a kind of conductive polymer, in the 1970s. Heeger and MacDiarmid collaborated with him and published an article on their work in 1977 that is considered a major breakthrough.
People at the University of Tsukuba and locals in his hometown of Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, were delighted with the unexpected news and started preparing celebrations on Wednesday.
But some of the people said they are not sure if large-scale parties will make the scholar happy, considering his well-known shy character. Last spring, he declined to attend a party at the university to commemorate his life-time achievements on the occasion of his retirement from the position of professor.
Shirakawa graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1961. He was a professor at the University of Tsukuba from 1982 to last April. He received the highest award from the Society of Polymer Science, Japan, in 1983.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said, “I sincerely congratulate him, as it is a global recognition of the doctor’s long years of excellent achievements in chemistry.”
Education Minister Tadamori Oshima said, “Dr. Shirakawa’s receiving the award is an encouragement to and generates pride in the nation, because it shows to the world that Japanese researchers maintain a high level of ability.”
Oshima concurrently heads the Science and Technology Agency.
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