Star students to mark Holonyak's legacy as 'national treasure' turns 90

Star students to mark Holonyak's legacy as 'national treasure' turns 90

URBANA — The latest in Nick Holonyak's lifetime of honors: a 90th birthday party featuring his star students celebrating his legacy.

Holonyak, the emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Illinois known as the father of the LED, is turning 90 on Nov. 3.

Four of his former students — all award-winning industry leaders — will return to campus today to deliver lectures on different aspects of his research. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon in the Grainger Auditorium of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, 306 N. Wright St., U.

UI Engineering Professor Milton Feng, who developed the first transistor laser with Holonyak in 2004, organized the event to celebrate his "legacy of innovation."

It can be seen in the high-powered lasers used to weld metal for cars and trucks, in the technology that carries internet signals around the world, and in energy-saving LED lights that are now ubiquitous, said his former student Donald Scifres, who founded a research company built on Holonyak's innovations.

"He's a national treasure," said Scifres, who counts Holonyak as his "number-one influence. Had I not studied with him, I would not have pursued the career I did and been as successful as I was."

Holonyak noted that Scifres was once listed in Forbes, joking, "People were starting to follow me around on campus because he was my student."

An Illinois alumnus, Holonyak joined his alma mater as a faculty member in 1963 at the invitation of his doctoral adviser and hero, John Bardeen, the two-time Nobel physics laureate and inventor of the transistor.

During the next four decades, Holonyak and his students introduced several major optics-related inventions to the world. Holonyak's best-known is the world's first practical light-emitting diode, or LED, which he created while at General Electric in 1962.

Feng said Holonyak's inventions helped "light up the world." And he said the transistor laser they developed will have a significant impact on electron-photonics integrated circuits used to transmit information in the next generation of big data and supercomputers.

At 90, Holonyak is still an intellectual dynamo, busy working with Feng every Saturday and writing a new book. He talks in amazing detail about his research, his childhood in southern Illinois coal country, and Bardeen's place in history — "right next to Lincoln."

Asked about reaching this birthday milestone, he said, "I didn't figure on that," but added, "I've got things to do yet."

Back troubles will prevent Holonyak from attending today's event, but he planned to visit with his former students at his home at Clark-Lindsey Village.

Five speakers were invited, all former doctoral students who continued their work in LED and semiconductor lasers after graduation to build successful careers, Feng said. Two are Holonyak's close friends, George Craford and Russell Dupuis, who shared the prestigious Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering with him in 2015. The trio also won the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 2002 and traveled to Moscow the next year when Holonyak accepted the first Global Energy Prize.

One of the earliest researchers in semiconductor materials and devices — he still has one of the first — Holonyak is a pioneer in the field of optoelectronics, devices that convert electricity into light or vice versa. His development of the first visible red LED, the "quantum well" laser and other technology opened the door to further LED research.

Craford and Dupuis both refined LED technology, laying the path for high-quality, commercial LEDs available today.

Dupuis, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, developed an electronically controlled method for growing the crystals used in LEDs. His technology is "the basis of virtually all production of high-brightness LEDs as well as diode lasers, solar cells and high-speed microelectronics and optoelectronics," Feng said.

Craford is credited with developing yellow, amber and red LEDs and, later, green and blue LEDs, and helped develop the first high-power white LEDs at Philips Lumileds Lighting Co.

Holonyak has continued to redefine optoelectronic technology, contributing to household dimmer switches, lasers that run CD and DVD players and fiber-optic communication.

Scifres said he learned early on about Holonyak's penchant for working "24-7." After joining Holonyak's lab as a doctoral student, he promptly took a three-week honeymoon that had been delayed from his wedding the previous winter. When Scifres returned, he learned that was "a big no-no."

"I was almost out of the lab before starting," Scifres said. "I don't think I've had a three-week vacation ever since because of his influence," he said Thursday after visiting his mentor.

Scifres, who holds more than 140 patents, co-founded Spectra Diode Laboratories in 1983, which built on Holonyak's innovations to develop high-powered lasers for undersea communication and automotive welding, among other uses. Scifres is now chairman of SDL Ventures and SDL Capital investment companies.

Craford had to cancel his appearance today cause of a family emergency, but another speaker will present his talk.

Besides Dupuis and Scifres, the other speakers are:

— Dennis Deppe, professor of optics and photonics at the University of Central Florida, who used a material discovered by Holonyak and one of his graduate students, called native III-Voxide, to make a laser that is now used in data centers that feed information into the internet. It's also used in laser mice for computers, sensors such as atomic clocks, and the facial recognition and 3-D sensing in Apple's iPhone X.

— Fred Kish, senior vice president of Optical Integrated Circuit Group at Infinera, who led the commercialization of the highest-efficiency red-orange-yellow visible LEDs at Hewlett-Packard, Feng said.