LED inventor seeing red over this week’s Nobel Prize for blue

Remember these guys: Nick Holonyak and his red LED team, back in the day.

The lighting industry might be buzzing with pride now that the co-inventors of the blue LED won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but there’s at least one guy who’s not so impressed.

Nick Holonyak gets credit for inventing the red LED back in 1962, a breakthrough that greased the skids for the blue LED some 30 years later.

Over the decades, Holonyak never really seemed to care too much about any Nobel oversight, even though colleagues often pushed for him to receive the illustrious honour.

Holonyak always seemed happy enough to let his work speak for itself. Until this week, that is, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to blue boys Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura (watch our interview with Nakamura below).

‘Hell, I’m an old guy now, but I find this one insulting,’ 85-year-old Holonyak said from a care home in Urbana, Illinois, where he was thumbing through The Bright Stuff, a book about him and his invention, The Independent reported. ‘The LED as you know it today comes from us.’

Holonyak, a retired engineering professor from the University of Illinois, invented the red LED while at General Electric, where he coaxed visible red light from a diode (a semiconductor). Thus was born the practical light emitting diode. LEDs would soon become ubiquitous as indicator lights and displays in seemingly anything electronic – lab equipment, calculators, stereos, phones, digital clocks, whatever.

A green LED followed, but it wasn’t until Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura delivered the blue LED that engineers were able to combine the three colours to make white light for LED bulbs, which require only about 20 percent of the energy of an incadescent bulb and which in principle last for decades (blue LEDs can also produce white light with the addition of a phosphor material).

That’s what impressed the Nobel panel. It recognised this year’s three laureates for ‘having invented a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source.’ The Academy noted that: ‘Using blue LEDs, white light can be created in a new way. With the advent of LED lamps we now have more long-lasting and more efficient alternatives to older light sources.’

Professor Holonyak, who knows Nakamura, did not downplay the blue LED.

‘However, he believes the work on the blue LED cannot be separated from his team’s work on the first visible LED they created,’ The Independent wrote.

Of course, the discussion could wind back further in time, as inventors including George Biard and the late Oleg Losev also blazed LED trails before Holonyak. For all of them, this week’s accolades for Nakamura et al would probably cause some rejoicing at what they helped create. At the same time, it might also give them a pinch of the blues.

Photo is from GE News Center

The future according to Shuji Nakamura – now Nobel laureate Shuji Nakamura – at last year’s LuxLive: