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Invention of blue LEDs bags the 2014 Nobel prize in physics


Invention of blue LEDs bags the 2014 Nobel prize in physics

The invention of blue LEDs is like the re-invention of Edison’s incandescent bulb. It won the physics Nobel in 2014: Why and what does it means to physics?

For the third time in five years, work on light has won the coveted Nobel prize in physics. Japanese physicists  Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, along with Japanese-born naturalised American physicist Shuji Nakamura (all of who were working in Japan at the time of their invention), have won the 2014 Nobel for the invention of the blue Light Emitting Diode.

The importance of blue LEDs cannot be overlooked: having already had red and green LEDs, the trio’s invention of the blue LED meant we finally could produce white light from diodes. This was an energy-centric, cost-centric and scientific breakthrough. Prof Nakamura’s research at one point slowed to a halt, as he recalls, and his company, Nichia Corp, stopped funding him.

“… for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources … [It] has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all … Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”

— Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (press release)

A lesser talked-about implication of this is how the three men worked on their blue LED much longer, into the 90s, and gave birth to blue lasers and in turn to the Blu-Ray discs of today. In what was hailed as a nod to practical physics after last year’s award for extremely theoretical work (Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their hypothesising of the so-called “God particle”) many viewed it as trying to highlight the use of physics to society, which, to many, is not immediately apparent.

He was forced to work in secret, and, although Nichia gained the fruits of his labour, they ended up paying him close to $8m in a 2001 law suit.

A well-known fact is that blue light has shorter wavelength than red. As a result of this, you can target a blue beam of light more narrowly than a red or green beam. If you were using a red or green beam to read from a disc (remember the red lasers in old DVD players?) the beams would focus on a

(From left) Drs Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura.Image courtesy, Kyodo News/AP Photo via ABC News.

(From left) Drs Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura.
Image courtesy, Kyodo News/AP Photo via ABC News.

Another fairly dominant pattern noticed had a lot to do with specific branches in Physics — classical physics, for instance, has not won a Nobel for quite some time now; and nuclear physics has consistently been winning medals since the first Nobel prize ever given (Röntgen for discovering the X-Ray). Physics World, along these lines, had rightly predicted that molecular or optical physics will bag this years prize, and so it did.

larger area, so the information to read had to be spread out over a larger area, making it hard to fill in lots of information on a 4.7″ diameter disc. Using blue rays of light meant better focus, hence more information storage (or better picture quality, ultimately) — hence Blu-Ray drives.

For the physics community, this years Nobel prize is proof of the immediate, vast and lasting effect of physics — no less than Edison’s invention of the bulb. For others? Know that the screen you are reading this on is probably full of white LEDs.

Find out lots more about LEDs ➔

Cover image by Steve Jurvetson

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V.H. Belvadi is an Assistant Professor of Physics. He teaches postgraduate courses in advanced classical mechanics, astrophysics and general relativity. When he is free he makes photographs and short films, writes on his personal website, makes music, reads voraciously, or plays his violin. He currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Physics Capsule.

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