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URBANA — One of the most accomplished — and colorful — scholars to work at the University of Illinois now has a building named in his honor.

The UI's Micro and Nanotechnology Lab is being named for engineering icon Nick Holonyak Jr., inventor of the first visible LED and other breakthroughs that have transformed technology.

College of Engineering officials said few alumni in the UI's 152-year history have had as much impact as Holonyak — a UI engineering alumnus, the first graduate student of two-time Nobel Laureate John Bardeen, and an internationally renowned engineer in his own right.

"He changed the world," said his long-time collaborator, UI engineering Professor Milton Feng.

In 1962, Holonyak discovered a new alloy that would emit light in the red part of the visible spectrum, creating the first practical light-emitting diode.

Energy-saving LEDs are now ubiquitous, from flashlights and electronics to spacecraft.

Holonyak and Feng also demonstrated the first transistor laser, which brings optics and electronics together, with huge potential for fiber-optic communication and faster computers.

The impact of his work will be felt for the next 200 years, said Feng, who is still publishing papers with Holonyak. "I'm so lucky to have a mentor like that."

UI trustees will vote next week on the naming of the Nick Holonyak Jr. Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, an honor usually reserved for multimillion-dollar donors.

"All the technologies that came to light and distinguished the University of Illinois over the years as a leader in the transformation of the microelectronics industry started" in Holonyak's lab, Provost Andreas Cangellaris told UI trustees at a committee meeting Monday.

Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir, former director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab, suggested the idea but said the campus has been looking for a lasting way to recognize Holonyak's work for some time.

"He just has so many contributions over the years," Bashir said. "He's had such an amazing impact on our campus, our students and the world, that we feel like this is a small way to thank him for everything he's done."

Bardeen's influence

Holonyak was happy to get the news from Bashir but turned the conversation, as he always does, to his esteemed mentor, Bardeen.

"That's just who Nick is," Bashir said.

In an interview Sunday, Holonyak did the same, calling Bardeen "the real deal."

He also said he wished his parents were alive to see him receive this honor. He continues to use "Jr." to honor his father, a hard-working, immigrant coal-miner from southern Illinois who insisted his son work above ground and get an education. Neither of Holonyak's parents attended school.

"When I was in first grade, I was more educated than they ever had been," he said.

Holonyak was born in Franklin County but grew up in Glen Carbon and worked on the Illinois Central railroad to save enough money to go to the UI. He holds three UI electrical engineering degrees, earning a doctorate in 1954.

He credits the UI and Bardeen — who earned Nobels for the invention of the transistor and his theory of superconductivity — for changing his life.

"The greatest thing they ever did was find the money, when there was no money, to bring John here," Holonyak said. "When I came here, I didn't know how I'd be changing the world. I didn't know where we were going. Someone had to make an investment in what we were doing.

"This is a remarkable place, because of the students I had," he added.

After working at Bell Labs and GE, and serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Japan, Holonyak joined the Illinois faculty in 1963, establishing a research program at the Electrical Engineering Research Lab.

'You're never too old'

During the next four decades, he and his students produced major advances that led to brighter and more efficient LEDs and lasers, used for fiber-optic communications, CD and DVD players, optical storage, medical diagnosis, surgery, ophthalmology and other applications.

In 2004, he and Feng, along with post-doctoral researcher Gabriel Walter and graduate student Richard Chan, invented the transistor laser, a device that simultaneously emits an electrical signal and a laser output. Researchers believe the transistor laser, which incorporates quantum wells into a high-speed bipolar transistor, will lead to much faster electronic-photonic integrated circuits for computers and electronics.

Feng had previously developed the world's fastest transistor and recalled sharing that news with Holonyak in 2003.

"He just shook his head and asked, 'Do you see the light that comes out of your transistor?' I said, 'No.' He realized it was there." That conversation and others led Feng and his students to the discovery.

"He's the one asking the right questions," Feng said.

Holonyak retired in 2013 but continues to collaborate with Feng, who visits him weekly.

Feng said the transistor laser represents "a revolution for the next century," with implications for artificial intelligence, 3D security identification, autonomous cars and high-speed data transfer.

"The future is very bright. I tell Nick, 'You need another 100 years to get it going.'"

Holonyak's mind never stops working, relating stories about his past colleagues and talking about the potential for their latest research.

"You're never too old. Your body may be too old, but your mind isn't necessarily too old," Holonyak said.

'Engineering giants'

Framed on his wall are certificates and scholarly articles about his most prestigious honors — the 2017 Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering from the Franklin Institute; and the 2015 Charles Stark Draper Prize he received with former students Russ DuPuis and George Craford, considered the Nobel Prize for engineering.

It's a sore spot for Feng and others that the Nobel Committee didn't recognize the trio in 2014, when the physics Nobel went to three other scientists who developed the blue LED, used to make white light bulbs.

"The fundamental work was done here," Feng said, and provided the path for later LED developments.

Holonyak is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received the 2002 National Medal of Technology.

Holonyak's semiconductor and LED work laid the foundation for much of the research at the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (208 N. Wright St., U), which opened in 1989, officials said.

Faculty members and students now conduct research there with applications in high-speed data communications, high-efficiency lighting, solar power, flexible electronics, biosensors for drug discovery, biomedical imaging, disease diagnostics, vaccine delivery strategies, environmental monitoring and novel microelectronics/photonics concepts for next-generation computing architectures.

The lab was "built on the semiconductor legacy left by engineering giants like Nick Holonyak," Director Brian Cunningham said in a release. "In the same spirit, we are producing innovations ... that we anticipate will have similar positive impact to future generations. We are honored to have his name associated with that work."

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).