16 June 2016

Queen's Birthday Honour for Australian plastic banknote pioneer

Professor David Solomon
IChemE Fellow and emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne, David Solomon, has been awarded the highest recognition in the Australian honours system, The Companion of the Order Australia (AC), in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Solomon was recognised for his ‘Distinguished service to science as an academic, researcher and author in the field of polymer chemistry and plastics, to the development and commercialisation of processes and materials, and to professional scientific institutions.’

Solomon’s interest in polymer science was ignited as a sixteen year old working at Dulux Paint. His breakthrough work in controlling the structure, composition and properties of polymers, by using simple chemistry is widely recognised.

Solomon acknowledges that he is best known for his work in developing the durable and recyclable plastic banknote, but pointed out: “This is only one use of the technology. Other uses are in paints, as a thickener in motor oils and drug delivery systems.”

“The technology has a wide-range of applications and where there’s need for a certain polymer structure it can be made by very controlled chemistry.”

The development of the polymer banknote was the result of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) approaching senior scientists to design a more secure note following the forgery of AU$800,000 worth of $10 notes in 1966.

In 1968 Solomon was working as a chemist for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO). Initially, polymers were not seen as the solution, but after some hesitation, largely prompted by Solomon’s junior status, he was invited to join the team.

According to Solomon, it was a lengthy and frustrating process; “This was largely due the RBA being a conservative organisation, and one that could not make the shift from being an entity that imported paper and inks for banknotes to one that exports.”

“The RBA’s senior technical people also had difficulty translating the technology into practice. Their focus was on accurate printing, which was not going to address the security issue.”

With no funding, and still having to carry out his normal duties, Solomon plugged away at developing the plastic film. It wasn’t until 1983, that the RBA’s new Governor, Bob Johnston, made the decision to introduce Australia’s first polymer banknote.

Solomon continued: “Production was carried out in secret to prove we could do it.”

“The development work was a success and in 1988 Australia’s first plastic note was currency - the bicentennial $10 note.”

Solomon warned the RBA, that whilst polymer notes are more difficult to counterfeit, constant vigilance would be required to keep one step-ahead of the forgers and the bank now employs several chemical engineers and scientists in its plant in Melbourne, Australia.

Solomon went on to say, “Over 30 countries have now adopted polymer banknotes, and the UK will issue its first plastic notes in September.”

Solomon has a strong industry background and is an advocate for bringing academia and business closer together. His pioneering work prompted many chemical engineering departments around the world to embrace polymer studies.

When asked to offer advice to emerging chemical engineers, Solomon says to: “Always do science well, and take the project as far as you need to convince the customer it is viable.”

Solomon currently works as a Senior Advisor at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He works closely with one of his former students, Professor Greg Qiao, who is the current leader of the Polymers Science Group.

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