Professor Shuji Nakamura’s Nobel Prize-winning invention was the achievement of years of solitary, dedicated research. By Jessica Gang.
The invention of the incandescent lightbulb by Thomas Edison in 1879 was a watershed moment in the history of electricity. Gone were the days of weak and irregular gas-powered lamps, with their risk of fire, suffocation and gas leak explosions.
The lightbulb and the electric light infrastructure that Edison created transformed the landscape of social and economic life; for the first time, industrial workers could hold night jobs in factories and plants without risking safety violations, and electricity could be widely distributed using a single power source.
In the 21st century, however, electric light bulbs have begun to be replaced by something even more innovative—LED lights. These light-emitting diodes are now commonly found in streetlights, phone and tablet screens, and laptop displays. They are used to light sidewalks, driveways, offices, and even billboards in Times Square, and their bright light, versatility, and sustainability make them a more popular lighting choice than lightbulbs for both billboards and desk lamps.
If you’ve basked in the warm glow of a streetlight lately, adjusted the brightness on your tablet or phone screen, or even been awed by the bright lights of a billboard, chances are that you owe part of your good fortune to a discreet manufacturing company located on Japan’s smallest island, where one man’s tenacity would help make a discovery that sparked a lighting revolution.
Shuji Nakamura was born in a small fishing village off the coast of Shikoku, the son of a maintenance man for Shikoku Electric Power. In 1973, he entered Tokushima University, a small state school in Shikoku, to study electrical engineering. It was there that he first developed an interest in the physics of solid-state materials, which would eventually propel him to colossal heights.
After graduating from Tokushima, Professor Nakamura began working at Nichia Chemical Industries, a little-known company on Shikoku that was primarily known for its development of fluorescent lamps and phosphors for color television. When Professor Nakamura joined the company in 1979, however, Nichia had hit a dead end. If they wanted to continue growing, they needed to move beyond the crowded Japanese market for fluorescents and create something more innovative. They envisioned using colored LEDs to create a more vibrant future, and this is where Professor Nakamura came in.
For two decades, Professor Nakamura worked tirelessly on LED light production for Nichia. His original task was to create gallium phosphate, an efficient LED light base. Professor Nakamura’s own inexperience with LED lights and the fact that Nichia had no budget for equipment, meant that he had to conduct dangerous chemical experiments using a makeshift reactor, cobbled together from discarded lab materials. The phosphorus explosions from Professor Nakamura’s afternoon and evening experiments became so commonplace that eventually, his coworkers stopped coming to see if he was all right.
Professor Nakamura spent countless hours in the lab, first working to create LED light bases, and then LED lights themselves. These inventions were not enough to raise significant revenue for the company or raise his profile in the world of research, so he eventually went to Nichia’s CEO with a daring proposition—he wanted to create the world’s first bright blue LED light from scratch. Red and green LEDs had been on the market for some time, but the semiconductor technology that enabled their creation could not be manipulated to create blue light. The creation of the blue LED light was essential to the development of white LED light, which could replace light bulbs on a massive scale.
So began what Professor Nakamura would later call his “climb to the top of Mount Fuji.” From 1988 to 1993, he worked in the lab from 7 a.m to 7 p.m., only taking New Year’s Day off. His work was largely solitary, as few of his colleagues at Nichia could understand the depth of his research. Two notable exceptions to this were Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano from the University of Nagoya, whose LED breakthroughs Professor Nakamura watched closely, and with whom he would eventually share the Nobel Prize.
After years of Professor Nakamura’s hard work, in 1993 Nichia announced that it had patented its first blue LED light. From that moment on, Nakamura dedicated the rest of his career at Nichia to perfecting his discoveries, encouraging Nichia to develop white LED lights and himself inventing the blue laser diode, previously considered almost impossible.
In 2000, Professor Nakamura left Nichia to accept a faculty position at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he serves as Research Director of the Solid State Lighting & Energy Electronics Center and The Cree Chair in Solid State Lighting & Displays, and continues to supervise research.
On October 7, 2014, Professor Nakamura, Akasaki, and Amano were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the blue light-emitting diode. UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang called it “a most exciting and joyful day of celebration” for the campus community, adding that since his arrival at UCSB, Professor Nakamura had “been a pioneer of not only a new field of research, but of a scientific revolution.”
While many others in his shoes might see the Nobel Prize as the pinnacle of their career, Professor Nakamura shows no signs of slowing down. He has been the recipient of the 2015 Global Energy Prize, the 2018 Zayed Future Energy Prize, the 2020 National Academy of Science (NAS) Award for the Industrial Application of Science, and the 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, among many others. He holds more than 200 US patents and over 175 Japanese patents, and has published over 730 papers in his field.
In an interview with Brunswick’s Jessica Gang, a recent UCSB alumnus, Professor Nakamura sheds light on how his time at UCSB has shaped his post-Nobel career, what circumstances separate his experience in the US from his past in Japan, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his relationship with his students in unexpected but not altogether unwelcome ways.
Are there any qualities that you believe it is essential for inventors to have?
There are so many inventors. In my case, I think about one thing very deeply. I don’t have common sense [laughter]. I know small things, narrow things. I easily forget people’s names. I easily forget the location of places. I can’t remember those things because always I think about one thing—my research.
Just my research, always. Even within my research—just one thing. I have to solve this one thing. For 24 hours, I am always thinking about this problem deeply, until I can solve it. That is my style. But you know, other inventors have different styles.
For many years, you worked alone to create the blue LED, spending day and night at work. What gave you the strength to continue dedicating so much time to a project with no guarantee of success?
From childhood, I loved to think deeply. For example, I was born near the ocean. So I always went to the beach when I was a small child. And I watched the sea and the ships going past. So I’m thinking about where the ship is going and how the ship is moving. I was just alone, always thinking about those things deeply.
Since childhood, if I found one curious thing, I always thought about it. When I joined the University of Tokushima, for the first three years, at the university, class was so boring. Just taking classes and going back. You know, it’s so boring. But in the third year, I started research at the university. And research was interesting for me because I did my research myself and I got some data. I had to think deeply. I loved to work to solve why I got this data. I loved to work on experiments. I started being curious about research myself and continue to today, too.
Right now, I work together with students. Students get strange research data, and always, I think about that curious, strange data with them. “Why did we get this result?” I want to solve this problem.
So that’s the reason. I continuously worked on the LED. Just researching to invent the blue LED, getting all kinds of data and experiment results. I loved working for those results. Because that was most interesting to me.