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 A. 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 lightbulbs 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 stood in awe of 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, Shikoku. It was there that one man’s tenacity, over many years, 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. At that university, 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 combination of red, green and blue was necessary to create white light. Therefore the creation of the blue LED light was essential. It could replace lightbulbs with white LED light fixtures on a massive scale.