Five engineers who helped develop light-emitting diode (LED) technology have been recognised for their contribution to reducing energy use.
The 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize (QEPrize) for Engineering has been jointly awarded to the fathers of the LED lighting.
Isamu Akasaki, Shuji Nakamura, Nick Holonyak Jr, M George Craford and Russell Dupuis all made critical interventions in the development of LEDs, and will share the £1 million (AUD$1.79 million) prize which is awarded every two years to engineers whose work has benefited humankind.
Low cost, high efficiency visible LEDs form the basis for all solid state lighting technology and help light up our world from traffic lights to computer screens.
LEDs are a global industry predicted to be worth over $140 billion by 2025. LED lighting is 75 per cent more energy efficient than traditional incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs, and plays a crucial role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Often referred to as the ‘green revolution’ within lighting, LEDs convert nearly 100 per cent of the energy they consume as light. Conversely, incandescent bulbs convert only 9 to 10 per cent. LED bulbs also last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs and their large-scale use reduces the energy demand required to cool buildings.
A study by the US Department of Energy found that the widespread installation of LEDs could save 348 TWh of energy per year by 2027. This is the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants.
LED technology wasn’t invented overnight. The five engineers built on each other’s work over decades – and continents.
In 1962, American General Electric engineer Holonyak Jr created the first first group III-V compound semiconductors, which led to the creation of the first visible red semiconductor laser and LED.
A decade later, Craford would shorten the wavelength, creating a yellow LED in 1972. Then, with his team at Hewlett-Packard, he pioneered the development of AlInGaP LEDs using Metal Organic Chemical Vapour Deposition (MOCVD).
In the 1980s and 1990s, Akasaki and Nakamura built on the MOCVD technology to invent the first blue LED. Nakamura created a two-flow MOCVD reactor, which could convert part of the blue light to yellow. This became the first white LED as the human eye perceives the combination of blue and yellow light as white. Akasaki and Nakamur were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for this invention.
Finally, Dupuis, a professor in electrical and computer engineering, helped develop the MOCVD material growth process, which streamlined the commercial production of LEDs.
In response to receiving the award, Nakamura emphasised that it was a team prize.
“I was able to do what I did in the 1980s because of what had come before,” he said.
“When I was modifying reactors every morning and every afternoon continuously for a year and a half, I never thought it would be so successful.”
Dupuis added that the recognition for the five pioneers was an honour.
“In those early days, when it was long days and nights hand-building reactors, Nick Holonyak mentored us,” he said.
“He really drew us in and inspired us to be part of the adventure that is engineering.”
Dr Jean-Lou Chameau, a member of the QEPrize judging panel, noted the worldwide impact of this relatively new technology.
“The science has been transformed into so many applications — especially in the last 10 years — and there is more to come,” he said.
“Specifically, its energy saving capabilities are incredible. Perhaps without realising it, everyone using this technology is opting for a greener option.”
The biennial QEPrize was launched in 2013 as the engineers’ answer to the Nobel Prize. The inaugural winners were the pioneers of the internet: Louis Pouzin, Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen.
Other winners include Dr Robert Langer for controlled release of large molecule drug delivery in 2015; Eric Fossum, George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi and Michael Tompsett for digital imaging sensors in 2017; and Dr Bradford Parkinson, Hugo Fruehauf, Professor James Spilker and Richard Schwartz for their work on the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 2019.
From next year, the prize will be awarded on an annual basis to increase recognition of global engineering excellence.