Professor at UI wins Russian award

Professor at UI wins Russian award

A University of Illinois professor who invented the first practical light-emitting diode has won the Russian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

UI electrical and computer engineering and physics Professor Nick Holonyak Jr., who also played a key role in the development of semiconductor lasers used in everything from CD players to fiber-optic communications, will receive the Global Energy Prize from Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 15.

The prize carries a $900,000 award, which Holonyak will share with two other winners selected this year, Russian scientist Gennady Mesiats and Ian Douglas Smith of California-based Titan Corporation's Pulse Sciences Division.

Holonyak was aware that the Russians were looking for candidates for the award. He received a packet inviting him to make a nomination "months and months ago."

"I knew that they were forming the thing," he said this week.

But he didn't know that his was one of the names in the hopper until he received a call last week notifying him he had won.

The call came from Holonyak's scientific colleague and friend Zhores Alferov, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in physics who's on the committee overseeing the Global Energy Prize.

According to a press release, the committee considered 400 scientists from around the world for the award, established last year to rival the Nobel and the Japanese Inamori Foundation Kyoto Prize, which honors lifetime achievements in areas that aren't traditionally covered by Nobel Prizes.

The Global Energy Prize announcement cited Holonyak's invention of thyristors, a device for regulating electric current, which is widely used in light dimmer switches, among many other applications.

It also cited the UI professor's invention of the first semi-conducting light-emitting diodes in a visible part of the spectrum, a component in the displays on everything from microwave ovens to aircraft controls today, brighter versions of which are likely to become the low-power replacement for the light bulb in the future.

Russian prize committee member Vladimyr Fortov called Holonyak's work "key inventions, paving the way to new ways of efficient energy-saving technologies."

The prize criteria are loosely tied to any kind of energy-related development, with preference given to work that promotes ecologically clean energy production, boosts energy-conserving mechanisms or makes a breakthrough in research into renewable energy.

"Partially, the rationale is that energy is a critical issue on the whole planet," Holonyak said.

The other winners, Mesiats and Smith, are known for development of methods to move electricity from place to place without loss.

The son of Slavic immigrants to the coal mining region of Southern Illinois, Holonyak earned all three of his degrees at the UI. He was the first graduate student of the late John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel winner in physics, who coaxed him back to the university to teach in 1963.

The Global Energy Prize adds to Holonyak's long list of awards, which includes the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor presented last year and the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1990.

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at

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