Regarded by many as the “father of modern electrochemistry,” Bard is best known for his work developing the scanning electrochemical microscope†, co-discovering electrochemiluminescence**, contributing to photoelectrochemistry* of semiconductor electrodes, and co-authoring a seminal textbook in the field of electrochemistry. He served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society from 1982-2001.
Bard is considered one of today’s 50 most influential scientists in the world. He joined the Society in 1965 and became an ECS Honorary member in 2013. ECS established the Allen J. Bard Award in 2013 to recognize distinguished contributions to electrochemistry.
Five Questions for Allen J. Bard
“I took to electrochemistry like a fish to water.”
When did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I knew at a very early age. I had a brother 11 years older than me and a sister 10, so they really took me in hand, and my brother liked science a lot. He had chemistry sets and all sorts of stuff and I immediately took to it—I loved it. Even at a very, very young age—four or five—I was playing around with that. I liked biology, I liked animals. I knew I was going to be a scientist.
What drew you to electrochemistry specifically?
I always liked electrochemistry. The experiment I liked best when I was an undergraduate was polarography, where you were doing electrochemistry with a dropping mercury electrode—nobody know about it anymore but it was a standard technique at the time. James Lingane—J. J.—was doing electrochemistry, some polarography, but other things as well. So I said I’d join that group and I’d see how that works. I loved it. I took to electrochemistry like a fish to water. That was just perfect for me.
How did you get started at the University of Texas at Austin?
I knew I wanted an academic job. I had looked a little bit in industry, but I knew I wanted an academic job because I understood better the system. I sent in applications to a number of places, and within a weeks, Norman Hackerman—who was chairman of the Department of Chemistry and the University of Texas at Austin—called me up. I still remember I had to run over to a different building to use the long-distance phone. I had talked to Hackerman, and Hackerman said, “I’m offering you a job: Instructor, $5,200 a year. Do you want to come to Texas?” And I said, “Well, I’ve never been to Austin and I’ve never been to Texas actually, so I don’t know what it’s like and you don’t know me. Don’t you want me to come down and give a seminar?” He said, “No.” He didn’t want to pay my airfare. Hackerman said, “You have a week. Let me know in a week if you’re joining us or not joining us.”
What do you attribute the success of the Bard Group to?
I was very fortunate to have a lot of very good students. I enjoy working with students, I think that’s the most important thing I ever did. People who have come through my lab? Henry White, Larry Faulkner, Dick Crooks, Johna Leddy… I hate to limit them because most of them are very good. There’s a kind of chemistry that develops in a group. It could be very good chemistry or it could be not so good chemistry. At that time, that era—there was an earlier era with Larry Faulkner and others—that was a very good group and that was the development of ECL actually. Then the era when Henry and Crooks and these guys were there was the era of developing polymer electrochemistry and the start of photoelectrochemistry.
Tell us about your work in electrochemiluminescence.
Electrochemiluminescence (ECL) was really fun. It was really nice to be able to make light come out of systems—different colors, it was beautiful—and everything was working well. Faulkner was working to show that there were magnetic field effects on the light. But I was fundamentally an analytical chemist and I always wanted to see analytical applications of this. We didn’t see how you could possible use ECL—very dry, oxygen free, nonaqueous solves—as any kind of a practical analytical technique for things. Then we pushed for about 10 years to see if we could get ECL in water—a really big goal for us—and to see if we could do it under conditions that would make a practical analytical technique. The key there was to find a luminescent material that was soluble in water.
† The scanning electrochemical microscope is used by scientists who study electrochemical behavior—that is, the flow of electrons to molecules, atoms, and other chemical species—at the interface between liquid and solid or a biological cell.
** Electrochemiluminescence is a process that harnesses the energetic transfer of electrons between molecules to create light. The technique has become part of a standard clinical assay to identify a range of microscopic substances, from proteins to viruses such as HIV.
* Photoelectrochemistry involves producing electricity or chemicals from light.