Blue LED inventors win Nobel Prize

By Kimberly Jane

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics was won by a trio of Japanese scientists – Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Japanese-born, U.S. Citizen Shuji Nakamuru – for their contributions to the blue LED. The scientists were awarded approximately $1.1 million dollars of which they will split. In simple terms, an LED (light-emitting diode) is a semiconductor that produces light when activated. Different colors are produced by varying chemicals.

85-year-old, Professor Nick Holonyak, a retired professor from the University of Illinois is outright displeased with the Nobel committee’s decision. In 1962, while working for GE, Prof Holonyak created the first visible-spectrum LED. Holonyak affirms without his red LED no other advancements in the LED arena would be possible. Often times, in science there is much ambiguity revolving around who deserves credit for a new invention or technology due to there being so many contributors at play.

Red, green and blue LEDs need to be combined to produce white light. With the blue LED, the scientist trio held the final answer to a puzzle which had lingered since the 1960’s. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has stated, “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century. The 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.” This advancement is significant due to how energy efficient the bulbs are and the 1.5 billion individuals who do not have access to electricity grids. An incandescent bulb converts only four percent of the electricity it uses into light versus the LED bulb which converts 50 percent electricity into light. The LED bulb lasts 30 times longer, lasting about 17 years based on four hours per day of use. The LED bulbs don’t heat up like traditional bulbs. This lack of heat is advantageous, because the bulbs are less likely to cause fire and won’t heat up a room in warmer temperatures.

Many of us, some unknowingly, have been reaping the benefits of the blue LED for sometime, benefits not exclusive to home lighting. Everyday uses of the blue LED can be seen in our vehicles’ headlights, smartphones, camera flashes, televisions, laptops, tablets and mp3 players. The blue lights are used in areas we are less likely to notice too, like traffic lights, high-speed networks, theatrical lighting, water purification and data storage. As time and technology progress the aforementioned lists will surely grow.

Was the blue LED worthy of the Nobel prize? In a recent interview with Inside Science, Professor Christian Wetzel at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York stated if the U.S. replaced all of its lights with LEDs it would reduce energy consumption by about 20 percent. We dare to imagine what would happen if this conversion happened on a global scale. This Japanese trio did more than win the Nobel, they have given us hope. Like all scientific innovations we are only beginning to see what will become of the blue LED.

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