Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

From Vitamins to Solar

By Stephen Luntz

It is not an obvious path from Prof Andrew Holmes’ PhD on the synthesis of vitamin B12 to the next generation of solar cells, but it has now led him back to the University of Melbourne where he completed his undergraduate degree.

It is not an obvious path from Prof Andrew Holmes’ PhD on the synthesis of vitamin B12 to the next generation of solar cells, but it has now led him back to the University of Melbourne where he completed his undergraduate degree.

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Holmes’ doctorate was at University College London, where Franz Sondheimer was making large molecules called annulenes. He then joined Albert Eschenmoser in Zurich. “B12 was the most complex naturally occurring small molecule (i.e. not a protein) known at the time, so it was a sort of Everest,” he says.

The work won him a lectureship at Cambridge, where he became a polymer chemist after his group played a key role in developing light-emitting polymers (LEPs) – the 1989 discovery that certain semiconducting plastics emit light when electricity is applied. Holmes then became Director of the Melville Laboratory of Polymer Synthesis.

LEPs may soon replace the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) used in laptops and TVs. Inkjet printing allows the creation of full colour flat screens of varying sizes, without the requirement for them to be backlit. These displays can be thinner and lighter than LCDs, and may also be cheaper.

The original polymers had short life-spans and inadequate efficiency, but all these problems have been overcome in a commercial environment. The work won the project team the 2003 Descartes Prize, which is one of Europe’s most valuable scientific prizes.

In 2012 Holmes was awarded a Royal Medal, in part for this work. “It’s exciting to work in polymer chemistry, an area that can lead to a diverse range of applications from the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.