Leading chemist's Australia Day honour a 'recognition of science'

OLED pioneer Andrew Holmes says science and technology are ‘just as important cultures as the arts’

An Australian chemist who stumbled across a light-emitting plastic that could revolutionise solar technology and create printable football-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.

For much of his career he has, in one way or another, been finding ways of doing in the lab – or in a factory – what nature has been doing for eons.

After contributing to the groundbreaking work that allowed scientists to produce vitamin B12 in the lab – rather than extract 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 colourless 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 revolutionised 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’s technology allows bright and colourful 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.”

But it occurred to Holmes that while the plastic technology he created could take electricity and produce light, the reverse process could be even 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 on to large areas.

The flexible printable solar cells are now a reality, but they have a way to go until they are powerful enough to be commercially viable.

Besides being a pioneering scientist, Holmes was also recognised ​ for his professional leadership across the sciences.

​The Australian Academy of Sciences, of which he is the president, is an organisation of scientists who are elected to the academy for their outstanding contributions​.

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

Holmes and the academy have done that by producing hugely popular teaching resources for primary and secondary schools, as well as publications on climate change and vaccination. They’ve also sought to be a resource for politicians, ​briefing them on issues that affect policy.

“A technologically able and aware scientific society is one that contributes very strongly to its own economic strength and development,” Holmes said.

“But I think there is an important cultural reason. Science and technology are just as important cultures as the arts – of literature, music, philosophy, ethics. Any creative should be an important aspect of a country that regards itself as making the most of the resources available to the human race.”

But Holmes wants his appointment as a companion of the Order of Australia – the highest level of award given – to be seen as one for all scientists.

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

“I feel as though I’m receiving it on behalf of the many talented Australian scientists that work so hard.”


Michael Slezak

The GuardianTramp

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