UPDATED: Nobel snub for former UI prof

UPDATED: Nobel snub for former UI prof

URBANA — Three scientists were honored with Nobel prizes Tuesday for their work on light-emitting diodes, but the man considered the father of the LED wasn’t among them.

Retired University of Illinois engineering Professor Nick Holonyak Jr. developed the first visible LED in 1962, as well as other advances that paved the way for the invention of the blue LED honored by the Nobel committee, his colleagues said.

“Fundamentally, the father of the LED is still Professor Nick Holonyak Jr.,” said Milton Feng, UI engineering professor and a longtime Holonyak associate. “He should be included.”

Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and naturalized U.S. citizen Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for inventing blue LEDs, a breakthrough that has spurred the development of LED technology to light up homes, computer screens and smartphones worldwide. The trio came up with a long-elusive component of the white LED lights that in countless applications today have replaced less-efficient incandescent and fluorescent lights.

Red and green light-emitting diodes have been used in applications such as watches and calculators for several decades. But scientists had struggled to produce the shorter-wavelength blue LED needed in combination with the others to produce white light when the three laureates made their breakthroughs in the early 1990s. Their work allowed longer-lasting LED to be used in a range of applications, including street lights, televisions and computers.

“They succeeded where everyone else had failed,” the Nobel committee said. “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”

Feng said the three scientists are deserving, and he’s “delighted” that the Nobel committee recognized the importance of the LED and its impact on solid-state, environmentally friendly lighting. 

But they built on the work of Holonyak and his proteges over the course of decades, Feng said. Holonyak’s invention of the first visible red LED, the “quantum well” laser and other technology opened the door for further LED research, Feng said.

“The three laureates recognized are brilliant scientists and engineers. Their contribution to the visible LED technology completed the triad of the colors — red, green and blue — needed to produce white light,” said Andreas Cangellaris, dean of the UI College of Engineering.

“However, I can’t help but wonder why the committee chose to single out the blue light LED in their selection of the winners, and leave out the pioneer, Nick Holonyak Jr., whose brilliant work provided the foundation for the visible LED technology. Very puzzling and very disappointing. This brings to mind Isaac Newton’s words: ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants.’ When it comes to the visible LED, Nick Holonyak, Jr., is THE giant.”


Holonyak: ‘It’s just wrong’

Holonyak was honored by the university in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the LED’s invention. Asked at the time about the elusive Nobel, Holonyak said, “I never think about that. The work stands on its own merits. It’s either good or bad or whatever. That’s the honor right there. The work stays. Prizes come and go.”

On Tuesday, Holonyak said he was disappointed and irritated at the omission — not just for himself, but for many of his former students and colleagues who did groundbreaking work themselves. 

“There’s at least half a dozen or more that they push out of the way,” he said.

He cited Russ DuPuis, a noted engineering professor at Georgia Tech, who developed an electronically controlled method for growing the crystals used in LEDs today; and Feng, who with Holonyak developed a high-speed transistor laser that could lead to smartphones with tremendously improved speed and bandwidth, or a chip with many times the power of today’s supercomputers.

“Are you going to tell me that the last slave to put a rock up on top of the pyramids gets all the credit for all of the rocks that are in there and up and down the sides? C’mon. What the hell is wrong with you people?” Holonyak said.

“From our perspective it’s just wrong,” he said, adding that the Nobel awards have become “political.”

DuPuis started a Nobel campaign for his mentor last year. He and others argue that Holonyak should have won in 2000, when the Nobel committee recognized Herbert Kroemer and Zhores Alferov for their development of semiconductor “heterostructures,” and Jack Kilby, another UI engineering alumnus, for his part in creating the integrated circuit. DuPuis said the work on heterojunctions wouldn’t exist without the alloys Holonyak developed while at GE, the first semiconductor alloy in the universe, which many had predicted to be impossible.

Holonyak’s discovery drew on the work of his mentor, the late John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Prize winner for his invention of the transistor and, later, his theory of superconductivity. Holonyak was Bardeen’s first graduate student at the UI. 


LED ‘benefits mankind’

Akasaki and Amano, 54, made their inventions while working at Nagoya University while Nakamura was working separately at Japanese company Nichia Chemicals. They built their own equipment and carried out thousands of experiments — many of which failed before they made their breakthroughs.

”It is very satisfying to see that my dream of LED lighting has become a reality,” Nakamura, 60, said in a statement released by the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor.

“I hope that energy-efficient LED light bulbs will help reduce energy use and lower the cost of lighting worldwide.”

Akasaki, an 85-year-old professor at Meijo and Nagoya universities, said in a nationally-televised news conference in Japan that he had often been told that his research wouldn’t bear fruit within the 20th century.

“But I never felt that way,” he said. “I was just doing what I wanted to do.” 

The Nobel committee said LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources because about one-fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes. They tend to last 10 times longer than fluorescent lamps and 100 times longer than incandescent light bulbs.

“The blue LED is a fundamental invention that is rapidly changing the way we bring light to every corner of the home, the street and the workplace, a practical invention that comes from a fundamental understanding of physics in the solid state,” said H. Frederick Dylla, the executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics.

Phillip Schewe, a physicist at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, said the prize shows that physics research can provide a practical benefit, rather than just probing the mysteries of the universe.

LED technology holds particular promise in lighting up parts of the developing world with poor electricity grids, Nobel committee member Olga Botner said. Ultraviolet LEDs can also be used to sterilize water, she said.

“It is not just for lighting Christmas lights on the streets of Stockholm in December but really something that benefits mankind, particularly the Third World,” she said.

The Nobel award in chemistry will be announced today, followed by the literature award on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics prize on Monday.


Associated Press reporter Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, and Malcolm Ritter in New York, contributed to this report.

Sections (2):News, Local

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Lostinspace wrote on October 07, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Comment in NY Times, with several in agreement:

M RiordanEastsound, WA 6 hours ago

Shuji definitely deserves this honor, but I wish a way had been found to include Nick Holonyak of the University of Illinois, who developed the very first visible-light LED in 1964. He was the real pioneer.

Rocky7 wrote on October 07, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Let's be frank here.  The Nobel prizes have become so politicized that they are almost meaningless.  That's particularly true for the peace prize, but the politicization is now permeating the entire Nobel Prize system.

Sad, but reality.

STM wrote on October 09, 2014 at 8:10 am

I doubt this was a "politicized" snub.  You're reading too much into it.

lschmitt wrote on October 08, 2014 at 4:10 pm

The Bright Stuff: The LED and Nick Holonyak's fantastic trail of innovation was published in Oct. 2012 as part of the 50th anniversary of the LED celebration at the University of Illinois.

This book describes how LEDs progressed from Holonyak's initial invention in 1962 all the way to the lighting revolution underway now. In addition, the book describes Holonyak's other major contributions to LED and laser technology.

Purchase your copy on Amazon.com (ebook) or through the Illini Union Bookstore (print) 217.333.2050.