Nick Holonyak Jr, pioneer of LED lighting, is dead at 93

LEDs radiate less heat than incandescent bulbs and are also environmentally safer than fluorescent lamps that contain mercury.
Nick Holonyak Jr
Nick Holonyak Jr

CHENNAI: Nick Holonyak Jr., an electrical engineer who became known as the godfather of the LED lighting that illuminates flat-screen TVs and laptop computers, and also developed lasers that enabled DVD and CD players, bar code scanners and medical diagnostic devices, died last month. He was 93.

His death was announced by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, his alma mater, where he taught from 1963 until he retired in 2013.

Professor Holonyak (pronounced huh-LON-yak) was among the first scientists to predict that incandescent bulbs and fluorescent lamps would eventually be replaced by LEDs, semiconductor chips the size of a grain of sand that emit photons of light when electric current is applied. He described the LED as the “ultimate lamp” because, he said, “the current itself is the light.”

LEDs radiate less heat than incandescent bulbs and are also environmentally safer than fluorescent lamps that contain mercury.

“Not only did Nick Holonyak invent the first visible LED; he predicted right from the start that the LED would eventually replace all other forms of electric lighting, which it is well on the way to doing,” said Bob Johnstone, a technology journalist and the author of “LED: A History of the Future of Lighting” (2017).

But in 2014, two other scientists, Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Shuji Nakamura of the University of California won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their successful development in 1993 of a high-brightness blue-light-emitting diode, which was needed to blend with red and green to create white illumination and produce a spectrum of other colors. (Professor Holonyak’s early invention of a diode that emitted red light explains why displays on alarm clocks and calculators were red — and only red — for a long time.)

“It was a travesty of justice that [Holonyak] did not share in the Nobel, which has everything to do with the narrow criteria by which the prize is awarded (the committee likes to restrict winners to a single discovery) and nothing to do with the indisputable magnitude of his achievement,” Johnstone said in an email.

Russell D. Dupuis, director of the Center for Compound Semiconductors at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said Holonyak was passed over for the physics Nobel Prize again in 2000 although in both cases he made the “fundamental material contributions”.

Holonyak’s collaborators, Herbert Kroemer and Zhores I. Alferov, shared the 2000 prize for discovering semiconductor and low-energy laser technology, which was quickly applied to practical uses like mobile phones, fiber optics, CD players and bar code readers.

“The cheap and reliable semiconductor lasers critical to DVD players, bar code readers and scores of other devices owe their existence in some small way to the demanding workload thrust upon downstate railroad crew decades ago,” Professor Holonyak told The Chicago Tribune in 2003.

“It’s a good thing I was an engineer and not a chemist,” he said in an interview with General Electric in 2012. “When I went to show them my LED, all the chemists at GE said, ‘You can’t do that. If you were a chemist, you’d know that wouldn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well, I just did it, and see, it works!’

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