STOCKHOLM – Three Japan-born scientists — Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura — won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes — a new energy-efficient and environmentally friendly light source.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the invention is just 20 years old, “but it has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all.”
Akasaki, 85, is a professor at Meijo University and distinguished professor at Nagoya University. Amano, 54, is also a professor at Nagoya University, while the 60-year-old Nakamura is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The laureates triggered a transformation of lighting technology when they produced bright blue light from semiconductors in the 1990s, something scientist had struggled with for decades, the Nobel committee said.
Using the blue light, LED lamps emitting white light could be created in a new way.
“They succeeded where everyone else had failed,” the Nobel committee said. “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”
Nakamura, who spoke to reporters in Stockholm over a crackling telephone line after being woken up by the phone call from the prize jury, said it was an amazing and unbelievable feeling.
Later, he said in a statement from his university: “It is very satisfying to see that my dream of LED lighting has become a reality. I hope that energy-efficient LED light bulbs will help reduce energy use and lower the cost of lighting worldwide.”
At Meijo University in Nagoya, Akasaki said in a nationally televised news conference that he had often been told that his research wouldn’t bear fruit within the 20th century.
“But I never felt that way,” he said. “I was just doing what I wanted to do.”
Akasaki and Amano made their inventions while working at Nagoya University while Nakamura was working separately at Nichia Chemicals. They built their own equipment and carried out thousands of experiments — many of which failed — before they made their breakthroughs.
The awards for Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura brings the total number of Japanese and Japan-born recipients to have won the Nobel Prize in physics to 10.
The last time a Japanese won a Nobel Prize was in 2012 when scientist Shinya Yamanaka, a 52-year-old Kyoto University professor, won that year’s Nobel in physiology or medicine along with John Gurdon of Britain.
“The blue LED is a fundamental invention that is rapidly changing the way we bring light to every corner of the home, the street and the workplace — a practical invention that comes from a fundamental understanding of physics in the solid state,” said H. Frederick Dylla, the executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics.
Phillip Schewe, a physicist at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, said the prize shows that physics research can provide a practical benefit, rather than just probing the mysteries of the universe.
On Monday, U.S.-British scientist John O’Keefe split the Nobel Prize in medicine with Norwegian couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for breakthroughs in brain cell research that could pave the way for a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The Nobel award in chemistry will be announced Wednesday, followed by the literature award on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize will be announced next Monday, completing the 2014 Nobel Prize announcements.
Worth 8 million kronor ($1.1 million) each, the Nobel Prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Besides the prize money, each laureate receives a diploma and a gold medal.
Nobel, a wealthy Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, provided few directions for how to select winners, except that the prize committees should reward those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Last year’s physics award went to Britain’s Peter Higgs and Belgian colleague Francois Englert for helping to explain how matter formed after the Big Bang.