The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Tuesday that this year’s Nobel Prize in physics will go to three Japan-born scientists — Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura — for inventing blue-light emitting diodes. We congratulate the three on winning the prize — a feat that brings the total number of Japanese and Japan-born scientists to have won the Nobel Prize in physics to 10.
The three accomplished their research into blue LEDs in the 1980s and ’90s. Although red and green LEDs had been developed in the 1960s, scientists for many years could not create blue LEDs. With the advent of blue LEDs, it became possible to produce the three primary colors of light through LEDs and consequently LED-based white lamps. This has led to the widespread use of LEDs in today’s society. The academy said, “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”
The key to success for Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura was focusing on a substance that other scientists had overlooked — gallium-nitride. While working for Matsushita Electric Industrial, the predecessor of Panasonic, Akasaki concentrated on GaN because it is sturdy and stable — a prerequisite for use in a vibratory environment such as motor vehicles. After moving to Nagoya University, Akasaki and Amano succeeded in producing transparent GaN crystal and in 1989 invented a blue LED.
Nakamura achieved his breakthrough while he was working at Nichia Chemicals, a small company in Anan, Tokushima Prefecture. He independently succeeded in developing a technology to produce GaN crystals in large quantities and developed a bright blue LED in the 1990s. He also developed a blue semiconductor laser and established a technology for the commercialization and mass production of blue LEDs.
Akasaki, 85, is now 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, now a U.S. national, is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Nakamura is known for having filed a lawsuit against Nichia over patent disputes. The Tokyo District Court in 2004 ruled that he was entitled to ¥20 billion for his invention, which was worth roughly ¥60 billion to Nichia, but Nichia appealed. At the Tokyo High Court in 2005, the two parties reached a settlement of ¥840 million.
Unlike incandescent bulbs, LEDs directly change electricity into light. Therefore they are very energy efficient, as well as durable and long-lasting. The academy said, “As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.”
What stands out about all three scientists is that they stuck to what they believed to be the right path and pursued it till they achieved success. At times they used handmade equipment and carried out thousands of experiments. Both the government and private sector should learn the importance of giving scientists sufficient time and freedom to carry out their research, and respect their rights regarding their inventions.
The government also should pay attention to the fact that its scientific policy, which places priority on research whose end results are assured from the start, overlooks people like Nakamura. Businesses should also consider whether their focus on short-term research is reaping the best results. Greater tolerance for scientific freedom and daring research is needed.
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