Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Hideki Shirakawa Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

January 19, 2001
Hideki Shirakawa and two others won a Nobel Prize for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. (PANA)

Hideki Shirakawa, a 64-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba, has been named the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2000. The prize was presented jointly to Shirakawa and two U.S. scientists--Alan Heeger, 64, of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Alan MacDiarmid, 73, of the University of Pennsylvania--for their discovery and development of conductive polymers, or plastics that can transmit electric current. The three plan to split the award money totaling 9.0 million Swedish kronor (957,447 U.S. dollars at 9.4 krona to the dollar) among them equally.

Shirakawa is the ninth Japanese to become a Nobel laureate and the first since Kenzaburo Oe, who won the prize for literature in 1994. He is the second Japanese to receive the chemistry award. The first was the late Ken'ichi Fukui, who won it in 1981.

A Groundbreaking Discovery
Most plastics are polymers, substances whose molecules repeat their structure regularly. They were once believed to be high-quality insulators that, unlike metals, do not conduct electricity. Shirakawa and his colleagues discovered, however, that by changing their molecular structure plastics could be made electrically conductive. At the end of the 1970s, they succeeded in chemically treating a plastic film called polyacetylene and making it conductive. Following this, the field of conductive plastics evolved into an important research field among physicists as well as chemists.

Conductive plastics have many advantages over metals. They are extremely pliable, can be shaped easily, and have a variety of applications. At present they are used in the manufacture of plastic batteries and anti-static coatings on photographic film, mobile phone and mini-format television screens, and the displays on touch panels and other devices.

In selecting the recipients, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stressed that the discovery of conductive polymers will undoubtedly revolutionize the field of molecular electronics. It may also, it added, pave the way for the production of transistors and other electronic components made of single molecules, which will dramatically increase the speed of computer operations and reduce the size of such machines to that of a wristwatch.

Shirakawa was born in Tokyo on August 20, 1936. After graduating from the Tokyo Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering in 1961, he enrolled in the graduate program there and received his doctorate in engineering in 1966. He subsequently worked as an assistant at the Chemical Resources Laboratory at his alma mater until 1976, when he went to the University of Pennsylvania in the United States as a researcher. Three years later he returned to Japan, joining the faculty of the University of Tsukuba as an associate professor. In 1982 he became a professor, and in April 2000 he was appointed professor emeritus. In 1983 he received the Award of the Society of Polymer Science, Japan, for his research into polyacetylene.

A Fortuitous Mistake
At a press conference following the announcement of the award, Shirakawa expressed his delight, saying "It is a great honor that our research has been deemed to be of value to society." He also described how he came to be involved in the research that won him the Nobel Prize.

In the 1970s, when Shirakawa was an assistant at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, one of his students added 1,000 times too much catalyst during a simple experiment to synthesize an organic polymer. What resulted was a thin, silvery film, which normally should not have formed. Shirakawa, whose own research was aimed at making organic polymers conductive, began looking at the properties of this film. His research came to the attention of Alan MacDiarmid, who invited him to come to the United States. Alan Heeger joined the team, and together the group began joint research into the area that won them the prize.

Many Japanese researchers are active in the field of conductive plastics today. This is in large part due to the achievements of Shirakawa, who established a laboratory at the University of Tsukuba, steadfastly devoted himself to basic research, and produced steady results.

In recognition of Shirakawa's achievement, the Japanese government chose him as the recipient of the 2000 Order of Culture, which it confers upon those who contribute to the development of Japanese culture, and named him a "person of cultural merit."

At the presentation ceremony held on December 10, 2000, in Stockholm, Sweden, Chairman Bengt Nordén of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry concluded his remarks with a short congratulatory message to Shirakawa in Japanese. For a moment Shirakawa seemed startled, but he quickly broke into a smile.

Japanese Nobel Laureates
Year Name Type of award
1949 Hideki Yukawa physics
1965 Shin'ichiro Tomonaga physics
1968 Yasunari Kawabata literature
1973 Reona Esaki physics
1974 Eisaku Sato peace
1981 Ken'ichi Fukui chemistry
1987 Susumu Tonegawa physiology
1994 Kenzaburo Oe literature
2000 Hideki Shirakawa chemistry

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.