Nobel Prize in Physics 2014 for the blue GaN LED
Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano enabled the global lighting revolution
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2014 was awarded in equal shares to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.
While red and green LEDs were invented long ago, efficient blue LEDs did not exist until Akasaki’s, Amano’s and Nakamura’s long series of inventions. Blue LEDs are needed to create white light.
The invention of blue GaN based LEDs enables the global lighting revolution. By replacing legacy light bulbs, fluorescent tubes etc by GaN LEDs, a big fraction of the world’s electricity can be saved, and the effect is even bigger in the developing world where still today many people use extremely expensive oil for lighting. Read a detailed analysis of the economics of lighting here.
The mainstream blue-LED scientific community was working on a dead-end: II-VI compounds
Of course the importance of blue LEDs was understood for a long time, and in the 1980s and 1990s all major industrial and University labs were working towards this holy grail – Hitachi, SONY, Philips, IBM, lots of Universities in Europe and US and elsewhere had groups working towards blue LEDs – but they all worked on II-VI compounds, which turned out to be a dead end.
The way much (not all – and thats the way towards Nobel Prize class discoveries) of mainstream established incremental research works, in most established labs, to get peer reviewed grants for research towards blue LEDs in the 1980s, this had to be II-VI work.
It needed strong willed people as Shuji, Akasaki and Amano to take a totally different approach outside the mainstream. Its to the credit of JST and other Japanese funding agencies to have supported Amano and Akasaki’s work. Shuji on the other hand ‘only’ had one person to convince: the owner and founder of Nichia Mr Nobuo Ogawa- and did I say that Shuji did not have a PhD at that time?
Which research agency would give a couple of million $ to a researcher without a PhD but with a big almost unreachable target who still has to learn the methods (MOCVD in this case) to work towards this target – other than Mr Nobuo Ogawa?
Shuji Nakamura actually introduced me to Mr Nobuo Ogawa in Anan (Tokushima-ken), and we had several curry lunches in a restaurant next to Nichia Chemical Industries Headquarters. I asked Nichia-Chairman and Founder Nobuo Ogawa how he decided at the time to fund Shuji Nakamura’s one-year stay at the University of Florida in Professor Ramaswamy’s group to learn MOCVD (by the way Professor Ramaswamy was my office-neighbour when I was Associate Professor on the NTT Telecommunications Chair at Tokyo University), and fund Shuji Nakamura’s work to the tune of many US$ million, which at that time was a large fraction of Nichia’s overall sales.
To my question how Mr Nobuo Ogawa took the decision to support Shuji Nakamura, Mr Nobuo Ogawa simply answered: “How did you chose your wife, Gerhard?”.
Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano worked on III-V compounds and achieved the lighting breakthrough
While the mainstream scientific blue-LED community worked with high intensity towards this dead end without knowing that they devoted their lives and their students to a dead-end, Akasaki and Amano over many years painstakingly solved one problem after another to create electronic devices based on the III-V compound semiconductor GaN and its variations.
Shuji Nakamura then built on Akasaki and Amano’s work, solved the three major and many many minor problems remaining to create commercially viable blue LEDs. But the work did not stop there: Shuji Nakamura also created white LEDs, UV LEDs, blue Lasers (e.g. for SONY’s blue-ray DVD players and displays) and a lot more. (read about Shuji Nakamura’s breakthrough work in great technical detail here: The Blue Laser Diode)
Shuji Nakamura, Nichia Kagaku Kougiyou and releasing Japan’s creative power
Shuji Nakamura was also a very diligent writer of patents and wrote a large number of very strong patents. These inventions together with patents propelled his then employer Nichia Kagaku Kougiou from a maker of phosphors (which were used for cathode ray tubes and fluorescent tubes) to one of the most important semiconductor companies. For these inventions, Nichia paid Shuji Nakamura a salary approximately on the level of a Japanese primary school teacher, plus a few US$ 100 bonus for the inventions.
Lets not go into the law suits between Nichia and Shuji Nakamura here, but let me say, that I have never found the complete story explained in the media. Most media reports give a very incomplete picture of the true story of the law suits between Nichia and Shuji Nakamura. – I guess most media just copy from each other in this case…
I noticed Shuji Nakamura’s work first around 1992 at the Japanese Applied Physics Conference in Nagoya, where Shuji gave a talk about his GaN work. I visited Shuji a couple of times in Anan (Tokushima-ken), he introduced me to the founder of Nichia, Mr Nobuo Ogawa, without who’s support Shuji’s work would have been impossible. With Nobuo Ogawa’s death, Shuji decided to move to the USA, to Santa Barbara, where he is working today. Interestingly, when Shuji was looking for a job, he had lots of offers from USA, but none from Europe and none from Japan… Why that?
Shuji developed deep insights about issues holding back Japan, and has shared his advice on many occasions, including also the Ludwig Boltzmann Forum, which I annually organize in Tokyo as a leadership platform. Read about his talk here, where Shuji passionately calls for changes – even a revolution – in Japan, to unshackle Japan’s creative energies.
To learn more about the Blue GaN LEDs and lasers, and their invention:
- “Room-Temperature Blue Gallium Nitride Laser Diode”, SCIENCE, 272, p. 1751-1752 (21 June 1996)
- “Fast, cheap and very bright”, SCIENCE, 275, p. 941-942 (14 Feb 1997)
- “Longer live for the blue laser”, SCIENCE, 278, p. 1902-1903 (12 Dec 1997)
- The Blue Laser Diode by Shuji Nakamura et al, (Springer-Verlag, October 2000, ISBN 3-540-66505-6), and read some background to this book here
- Market report and analysis of the solid state lighting market which we used to brief about 100 investment fund managers: “Solid State Lighting” (12th edition)
and of course you can also read Shuji Nakamura’s, Isamu Akasaki’s and Hiroshi Amano’s 100s or even 1000s of original scientific publications.
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