When physicist Alan Heeger and chemist Alan MacDiarmid were launching their careers two decades ago at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, "conducting polymer" was an oxymoron. Metals conducted electricity, plastics were lightweight and pliable, and never the twain should meet. No longer.

Today, the polymer polyace-tylene's conductivity equals that of copper. The potential commercial applications of conducting polymers, such as aircraft and missile coatings, antistatic fibers, and conductive shields for electronic equipment, have sparked new interest in both the scientific and business communities. Plastic batteries are already on the market in Japan, and Lockheed Corp. of Calabasas, Calif., has announced plans for the large-scale production of polyaniline, another conducting polymer. At the same time, all that is still unknown about this class of materials offers scientists a lifetime of work.

One could suggest that the world might never have known about these conductive plastics if it weren't for the...

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