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Color Him Smart

USC Dornsife’s Mark Thompson, a pioneer in convergent science and engineering and the inventor of key smartphone colors, receives the 2013 Tolman Medal for his contributions to chemistry.

By Susan Bell
April 1, 2014

Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry at USC Dornsife, and a pioneer in researching organic LEDs and organic solar cells, has received the Richard C. Tolman Medal for his outstanding contributions to chemistry. Photo by Max Gerber.

Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry at USC Dornsife, and a pioneer in researching organic LEDs and organic solar cells, has received the Richard C. Tolman Medal for his outstanding contributions to chemistry. Photo by Max Gerber.

Chemist Mark Thompson’s innovative research into color technology has resulted in the development of energy efficient displays for smartphones.

Thompson’s work in organic LEDs and organic solar cells has earned him the 2013 Richard C. Tolman Medal from the Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society (SCALACS). Since 1960, the awards have been given annually to Southern California researchers for outstanding contributions to chemistry.

A professor of chemistry at USC Dornsife, Thompson holds a joint appointment in materials science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

The medal is named for distinguished Caltech scientist Richard C. Tolman (1881–1948), who in 1917 famously showed that the electron was the charge-carrying particle in metals. A byproduct of this experiment was the measured value of the mass of the electron. Tolman Medal recipients include seven Nobel Prize-winners.

“This award is a special honor for me because it’s given specifically for research carried out in Southern California,” Thompson said. “The last 19 years of my career have all been at USC and it’s nice to be recognized and rewarded for work that I have done here. And to be honest, my students deserve a lot of the credit. The award is for me, but without my students there wouldn’t have been the research that led to the award.”

Thompson is the 10th USC Dornsife chemist to be awarded the Tolman Medal. Previous USC winners are Anton Burg (1961), Arthur Adamson (1966), Robert Vold (1969), Sidney Benson (1977), George Olah (1991), Larry Dalton (1996), Arieh Warschel (2003), G.K. Surya Prakash (2006), and Karl Christe (2011).

“Mark has been the department’s nominee for the Tolman in the past three years and we are extremely gratified that this persistent effort has paid off,” said Chi Mak, professor and chair of chemistry at USC Dornsife.

Thompson will be presented with the honor at an awards dinner to be held at the University Club at King Stoops Hall on May 6.

“Dr. Mark Thompson is a true visionary leader,” said Yumei Lin, section chair at SCALACS. “It’s amazing to know that there are more than 130 patents under his belt. He is also a significant leader in developing organic optoelectronic materials, which can be used in organic solar cells and detectors, organic light-emitting diodes and thin-film transistors.”

The technology Thompson developed is used in the world’s top-selling smartphones —Samsung’s Galaxy line — which use organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, as opposed to the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) found in other phones. Samsung manufactures 10 million OLED displays with Thompson’s colors per month.

Thompson’s work with OLED screens increases the efficiency of these mobile displays fourfold, improving the overall battery life and durability of the phones that use them.

“We developed efficient emitters for these systems that give rise to very high efficiency sub-pixels so we can make very efficient blue, green and red LEDs that can be incorporated into displays,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s research also focuses on applying much of the same chemistry that allowed him to develop energy-efficient OLEDs to making solar cells out of related materials, such as plastic.

“The result would be light-weight, durable and as flexible and foldable as a sheet of paper and could be used to make back packs or tent fabric. You could even make the sunroof of your car into a solar cell,” Thompson said.

“The idea is that you can collect energy anywhere the sun is shining. If you went out for a picnic, for example, you could lay out an A4-sized sheet of plastic made from solar cells that would allow you to run a radio or recharge your cell phone in the time it takes you to eat lunch.”