Holonyak, who 'replaced Edison's lamp,' retires from UI
URBANA — LED inventor and engineering icon Nick Holonyak Jr. has retired from the University of Illinois; however, colleagues said they expect him to continue his research.
The 84-year-old Holonyak officially retired from the university on July 31, but as fellow electrical and computer engineering Professor Andreas Cangellaris said, "I don't expect him to ever retire. Anytime you engage Nick in conversation, his mind is on the next hard problem to solve."
An Illinois native and UI graduate who studied under Nobel laureate and transistor inventor John Bardeen, Holonyak has been on the UI faculty since 1963.
UI Professor Milton Feng, a former graduate student of Holonyak's who became his research partner, says he expects to continue conducting research, particularly in the transistor laser, with his friend. Feng called Holonyak a "tremendous treasure for us. ... He is the reason why Illinois is famous. You will not find another one like him. He replaced [Thomas] Edison's lamp!"
Fifty years ago Holonyak discovered a new alloy that would emit light in the red part of the visible spectrum, creating the first practical light-emitting diode. The university and community feted Holonyak last fall with a 50th anniversary celebration of that discovery. Researchers from around the world met in Champaign to discuss its implications and Gov. Pat Quinn declared Oct. 24 as "Nick Holonyak Jr. Day."
The energy-saving LEDs can now be found in everything from flashlights to fiber-optic networks. Holonyak has said he didn't think it would take 50 years for the science to reach its potential and he still believes LEDs will eventually replace all other forms of lighting around the world because they use less power.
"I don't believe his mind will ever stop thinking" about advances in micro or nanoelectronics and how he can help solve problems the world will face not tomorrow, but in 50 years," said Cangellaris, who was recently head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Holonyak's base for his time at the UI. Cangellaris was recently appointed to be dean of the College of Engineering; he assumes that post later this month.
Cangellaris described Holonyak's retirement as one from the "non-research-related side" of his activities. Although he's not technically teaching, the veteran professor still takes time to interact with students and researchers from all over, "no matter what their title or level in an organizations," Cangellaris said.
Feng said he visits Holonyak once a week, bringing him papers to read and discussing with him new ideas and problems he and other researchers have encountered.
He said they hope young faculty will be able to continue their research into devices that could significantly reduce the energy and heat conducted in devices when tremendous amount of information is transferred.
"His head is still clear; he is much smarter than me. It's nice to have a world-class researcher to work with. He's like a dictionary," Feng said.
At the UI Holonyak has held the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Born in southern Illinois, Holonyak worked on the Illinois Central railroad before coming to the UI where he would eventually work in John Bardeen's laboratory. He earned his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. at the UI and then worked for Bell Labs. In 1963, Bardeen recruited him back to the campus.
Holonyak was unavailable for comment Tuesday.