A trio of scientists from the US and Japan won the Nobel Prize in physics today for inventing something that you’ll most likely find in your pocket or on your desk—the world’s first blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Aside from popping up in our electronic gadgets, these LEDs are helping change the way we light up our world, facilitating the development of environmentally friendly, energy-efficient light sources that offer a dramatic improvement from the incandescent bulbs pioneered at the beginning of the 20th century.
The three scientists are 85-year-old Isamu Akasaki, a professor at Meijo University, 54-year-old Hiroshi Amano, a professor at Nagoya University, and 60-year-old Shuki Nakahmura, a Japanese-born professor currently at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The groundbreaking inventions were made in the early 1990s, achieving what scientists had been doggedly attempting for three decades without success. While red and green LEDs had been around for some time, the elusive blue LED represented a long-standing challenge for researchers in both academia and industry. Without this critical last piece, scientists were unable to produce white light from LEDs, as all three colors needed to be mixed together for this to happen.
Akasaki and Amano were working together at Nagoya University in the 1980s when they started to make crucial developments in the production of semiconductor materials necessary for the blue diode. The duo then produced their first blue LED in 1992. Meanwhile, Nakamura had been working independently on his own diode at Nichia Chemicals since 1988. He too developed a way to generate an appropriate semiconductor, but his led to a cheaper and simpler technique than before.
The white LED lamps that resulted from this invention emit very bright white light and are superior in terms of energy efficiency and lifespan when compared with incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. LEDs can last some 100,000 hours, whereas incandescent bulbs only last around 1,000. Their longevity helps reduce materials consumption, and their efficiency will hopefully help reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
“With 20% of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4%,” said Dr. Frances Saunders, the president of the Institute of Physics. “This is physics research that is having a direct impact on the grandest of scales, helping protect our environment, as well as turning up in our everyday electronic gadgets.”
What’s more, these LED lamps have the potential to improve the quality of life for more than 1.5 billion people in the world that do not have access to electricity grids. Since they require very little energy input, they can run on cheap local solar power.