Alumni Profiles: Alan Heeger, '57

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Life on the Cutting Edge

 
 

Physics Researcher and Nobel Laureate Heeger Takes on his Next Big Challenge: Solar Energy

By Tom Nugent

The telephone rang. Alan J. Heeger (B.S. '57, high distinction) opened one eye and focused it on the bedside clock.

It was 5:45 a.m.

Who in the world could be calling the Heegers at this hour?

Half-awake now, the University of California scientist watched his wife Ruth fumble for the receiver. A moment later, her voice heavy with sleep, she was talking to somebody long-distance. Frowning, she was struggling to make sense of the caller's urgent message.

Dr. Heeger, a nationally renowned physicist who 24 years before had co-discovered a method for creating plastics that can conduct electricity, felt his impatience growing by the second.

Then Ruth put one hand over the mouthpiece.

"It's somebody calling from Stockholm, Sweden," she said grumpily, "but I can't tell what he wants."

In a flash, Heeger put two and two together.

"Don't hang up, Ruth!"

She didn't. Instead, she handed the phone to her 65-year-old husband, whose pulse was now racing. Heeger listened for a few moments, and his eyes grew wide – as the Stockholm caller explained that the University of Nebraska graduate had just won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Drop by Professor Alan Heeger's busy office at the University of California Santa Barbara on a typical weekday morning, and it won't be long before the famed scientist starts answering questions by reaching for his cobalt-blue felt tip marker.

"Okay, settle back, I'm gonna give you a chemistry lesson!" warns the legendary physicist, after you ask him to explain how he and his two Nobel co-winners came up with the blueprint for creating "conductive polymers" … and why that discovery seems certain to have an enormous impact on "renewable energy" within the next few years.

"All right, let's say you have a chain of carbon atoms," intones the physics guru, "and then you stick two hydrogens on there – that will give you polyethylene, okay?"

A moment later, the blue felt tip is squeaking across the whiteboard, as Heeger draws a chain of atoms that together make up a common form of plastic. "Now what we have here is a basic polymer – you can make stuff like Plexiglas out of it, and it's very common, very useful. But it can't conduct electricity, because it has no electrical properties at all."

The felt tip squeaks … squeaks … and now we're looking at a series of bright blue sticks and balls, fastened together like a child's Tinkertoy. "What we've got here is a group of covalent bonds connecting the carbon and hydrogen atoms, so that all of their electrons are completely tied up in the structure. Are you with me? Good! And so we ask ourselves: What will happen if we take off one of these hydrogens? Okay … the answer is that three of the electrons will still be tied up in the bonds, but the fourth electron will be free.

"So now you have a bond missing – and the electron that was attached to it can now go anywhere. And this what we call a ‘conjugated polymer,' which has an entirely different structure, and which can now serve as a semiconductor and as a metal – precisely because of the mobility of that freed electron."

Beaming happily, he steps up to the whiteboard again. Looking relaxed and even a bit jaunty in his customary black turtleneck sweater, his drab work pants and his neatly clipped, snow-white beard, Heeger brandishes the felt tip like some fiery 19th-century French impressionist brought to life again, as he quickly paints a diagrammatic picture of the "freed" electrons that will allow his radical new species of plastic to function like metal in the presence of electricity.

"The key thing to understand here is the relationship between the molecular structure of the plastic and the electronic structure," booms the world-class expert in materials science. "And then, once you understand that, you can begin to explore all the wonderful applications we are going to be able to find for plastics that can behave as if they were metals.

"Think about solar energy, for example. Within the next few years, we're going to be able to mass-produce roof shingles that will be printed with a thin film of conductive plastic – and that inexpensive, easy-to-apply film will instantly convert sunlight into electricity. Think of it: With this new, low-cost printing technology – like printing the daily newspaper – we'll be able to begin challenging our dependence on fossil fuel within the next couple of decades."

He pauses, frowning with thought, and then the felt tip once again begins to squeak frantically against the board. "Give me a 30-miles-in-diameter area of the Mojave Desert. That's all we would need, is about 30 miles of desert … and by covering that one tiny area of the country with these new (polymer-based) solar collectors, we would be able to meet all of America's energy needs – forever."

It sounds too good to be true, at first, but Alan Heeger knows what he's talking about. Having published more than 750 papers on topics related to materials science, and with more than a dozen patents on new products linked to his discoveries already in his back pocket, the former Nebraska frat man (Sigma Alpha Mu) now ranks easily as one of the world's most authoritative experts on the rapidly accelerating development of "alternative energy sources."

"There's no doubt that solar energy is taking off now, and especially in Europe," said the 70-year-old experimenter, while explaining how he and several major U.S. venture capitalists recently launched a high-tech engineering and marketing company (Konarka Technologies Inc. based in Lowell, Mass.) that plans to begin manufacturing his polymer-based solar-energy collectors in early 2008.

"The beautiful thing about solar energy is that it's decentralized," he said, "because it can be collected on millions of different roofs. And that decentralization makes it virtually terrorism-proof. But solar is also a completely clean technology – it causes no pollution of any kind. Nor are there any moving parts involved in the collection process, so the hardware will last a very long time before it has to be replaced.

"By relying on solar energy from conductive polymers, we won't have to depend on fossil fuels, anymore. We won't have to depend on Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, either. Once you begin to realize that energy and national security are the same thing, it's easy to understand why solar technology is going to be so important in the years immediately up ahead."

Eyes flashing, he returns the felt tip marker to its tray, then strides back toward his desk. Along the way, he passes the softly gleaming, bas-relief head of Alfred Nobel, looming from the Nobel Prize certificate that rides a tastefully decorated wall at the front of his UCSB office.

"I'm absolutely convinced that solar energy is a ‘world-changing technology,'" says the once-upon-a-time Nebraska physics-mathematics major. "And that's why I so often wind up wandering around the house at three o'clock in the morning, trying to figure out the next step in helping to make it happen."

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, at the height of the Great Depression, the Nobel Laureate was the grandson of Russian- Jewish immigrants in flight from a history of brutal pogroms and marauding Cossacks. "I didn't think of us as poor, exactly," said Heeger, "but it's true that we struggled to pay the bills at times – especially after the death of my father (Alan was nine), whose life ended on the same day that President (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt died."

After losing their breadwinner – the manager of a general store in small-town Akron, Iowa – the Heegers moved on to Omaha, where they were able to share a house with a sister of Alan's mother. "Those were pretty lean years, and we had to work pretty hard to get by," Heeger recalled. "But my mother made it very clear that my brother and I were expected to go to college. She felt quite strongly about that, because she'd received a college scholarship, herself, right after high school, but she'd been forced to give it up and go to work to help support her family."

Urged on by his education-hungry mother, Heeger racked up an impressive academic performance in high school (although he showed no special aptitude for science) and headed off to Lincoln with the idea of becoming an engineer after graduation. Arriving on campus in the fall of 1953, he plunged headfirst into what he now describes as a very stimulating "combination of partying and intellectual awakening" that quickly began to expand his narrow, small-town horizon.

He said his life changed dramatically during the fall of his senior year, when he took a course – "Modern Physics" – taught by the legendary Professor Theodore Jorgenson, now retired and still writing energetically about physics at age 100. "Ted Jorgenson introduced me to quantum physics, among other things," said Heeger, and he really opened my eyes to 20th-century science.

"Until I took that course, I'd mostly been studying stuff that was 300 years old. But now, with the help of Professor Jorgenson, I really became convinced that I wanted to do science. I wanted to get out there in the real world and start making things. Learning about quantum physics was part of my general awakening to the possibilities of science; all at once, I was on fire to get started on a career in science. I wasn't interested in theory; I wanted to work on experiments that would help to create new technologies."

What followed was an extraordinary odyssey through the world of contemporary physics and chemistry. After nailing down his physics Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961, Heeger would spend the next 20 years teaching the subject at the University of Pennsylvania – while also designing and then launching one of the nation's premiere scientific think tanks: the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter.

It was there in the Penn experimental lab, during the fall and early winter of 1976, that Heeger and two colleagues would first begin to explore the possibility of manipulating "long chains of polymers" with an eye to "altering their properties" so that they could be coaxed into conducting electricity.

Working hand in hand with PENN chemist Alan MacDiarmid and a promising young Japanese scientist named Hideki Shirakawa, the Nebraska grad spent several months thinking about the atomic structure of ordinary polyacetylene, a form of polymer or "plastic" that he describes as "the fruit fly of polymer science" because the molecular structure of this elementary polymer is so simple.

"Alan MacDiarmid, Hideki Shirakawa and I, while sitting together in my office, had the essential idea," he recalled, "during a relatively short period of discussion during the afternoon of an October day in 1976, that we could make polymers – long chain macromolecules – that would conduct electricity and exhibit the electrical and optical properties of metals and semiconductors."

One day at lunch a short time later, as he was talking about their research with MacDiarmid for at least the hundredth time, they suddenly had a new thought. What if they could find a way to chemically alter the structure of the hydrogen-carbon molecules of the plastic in such a way that electrons could be added or withdrawn from the polymer chain?

If they could accomplish that step, would the "freed electrons" be able to "flow" through the plastic as easily as in a metal?

"That was a really exciting moment," said Heeger. "And so we ran back to the lab from lunch, and within a few hours, we had demonstrated clearly that it could be done.

"You know, it was the famous: ‘Eureka! Discovery!'"

What Heeger and his team had done was to "increase the electrical conductivity in the plastic by a factor of 100 million, or so. The discovery of metallic levels of electrical conductivity in polyacetylene demonstrated that our ideas were both true and revolutionary; the field of semiconducting and metallic polymers had been created," he said.

A thrilling day at the lab? You bet. But Heeger's "eureka moment" also had a humorous side, which occurred when a frightened graduate student suddenly burst into his office with alarming news.

"I was hard at work on something," Heeger recalled, "and one of our grad students came rushing up to me. He was very concerned – because the ‘conductivity resistance' in the plastic had gone down so fast that the meter he was  using to measure it had burned out.

"He thought I was really gonna be angry, because we'd have to pay $3,000 for a new instrument. He just stood there in the doorway at first, hesitating. He said: "Do you want the good news or the bad news?'

"I asked him to start with the bad.

"He said: ‘The bad news is, we burned out the meter. But the good news is: There's a reason for it. The conductivity just went up by a hundred million.'" Heeger jumped to his feet.

"That's fantastic!" Twenty-four years later, almost to the day, Heeger and his team would win the Nobel for discovering how to make plastic carry an electrical current, and for refining and developing the process over the next two decades.

Ask Alan Heeger to tell you about his life today as a hard-charging physics researcher and Nobel celebrity-on-campus, and the veteran scientist will invariably describe himself as "a very lucky man."

"Here I am, about to turn 70, and I really feel blessed," he said. "I have no wish to retire at all – why would I? Fortunately, my health is good. And I'm having a very good time, professionally. I get to do the kind of research I want to do, and I'm really enjoying the process of putting together our new start-up company in solar energy.

"I'm also blessed in my personal life. I've been married to the same beautiful woman – my best friend, Ruth – for 48 years, and both of our sons (Peter and David) are successful scientists in their own right."

Frequently accompanied by Ruth and his sons, Heeger loves to ski the rugged Rocky Mountain slopes of Utah and Colorado. Why? It's simple: "In many ways, I think that skiing down a mountain and doing scientific research  are similar," he says with a merry chuckle. "To do both, you've gotta be willing to move along at fairly high rate of speed. You also have to be willing to take a risky plunge now and then."

Although Heeger often credits his success to "good fortune" and "good mentors" and "being in the right place at the right time," his friends and colleagues are quick to point out that he earned the more than one dozen national and international science awards on his shelf the old-fashioned way – by working extremely hard for them.

"Alan Heeger is a brilliant scientist and he also has big ideas," said longtime UCSB physics professor and researcher James Langer, Ph.D., who's been a close friend for the past 25 years. "The thing about Alan is that he's very feisty. He doesn't piddle around with the little things – he always goes after the biggest target he can find.

"He also can get quite passionate, quite emotional about his research, and that's very refreshing. When they told him that he'd won the Nobel, he got so excited that he also called us (Langer and several other colleagues) at five o'clock in the morning."

Adds James Meigs, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, which recently gave Heeger a "Breakthrough Award" for his work on conductive plastic and solar energy: "Our Popular Mechanics awards are about innovation and solving problems, and Alan Heeger's work hits both those notes. There's no doubt that he's a bold, innovative scientist.

"The age of cheap oil is giving way to an era in which we need to rely on a range of energy sources, and we think solar energy will be a key part of that equation. Dr. Heeger's innovation has the potential to make solar energy truly mainstream."

For Alan J. Heeger, this hopeful prediction can't come true soon enough.

"I really do think we're on the verge of an alternative-energy awakening in this country," he will tell you with a determined smile, "and I hope to go right on doing everything I can to help make it happen."