2004 Lemelson-MIT Prize Winner
Demonstrating an affinity for electrical engineering in childhood,
Nick Holonyak, Jr., invented the first practical LED (light emitting
diode), the first visible-spectrum semiconductor laser and the household
dimmer switch. His discoveries have had a major impact on the lighting
industry, global communications, and consumer products, and thus earned
him the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2004.
|Photo by Bill Wiegand,
Unversity of Illinois News Bureau
Used in digital readouts and to illuminate alarm clocks, coffee
makers, traffic lights, billboards and more, LEDs may one day be
used in lieu of fluorescent lighting in offices and homes. Considered
the ultimate lamp, the longevity and efficiency of LEDs make them
optimal for conserving energy.
Today’s LEDs, which come in several colors, evolved from
Holonyak’s seminal work in 1962. At a time when other researchers
focused on infrared light, Holonyak invented a method to synthesize
gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) crystals, which exhibited wavelengths
in the visible spectrum. Using this "tunable" alloy, Holonyak
crafted the first practical LED in 1962 (the red LED). “I
wanted to work in the visible spectrum where the human eye sees,
and everybody else was working in the infrared,” remarked
Holonyak also fabricated the first semiconductor laser from an
alloy, GaAsP. The success of the GaAsP laser prototype made possible
the development of red lasers used in CDs, DVD players and high
frequency circuits in cell phones. Holonyak’s GaAsP alloy
demonstrated that III-V alloys are viable. They are found in all
high performance LEDs and lasers today.
In 1977 Holonyak developed the first quantum well semiconductor
laser with student Edward Rezek. Such lasers are instrumental in
global fiber optic communications systems, such as transmitting
information over the Internet, in addition to surgery, materials
processing and more.
In 1980 Holonyak and his students introduced impurity induced
layer disordering (IILD) by intermixing the higher and lower energy
gap layers of a quantum well crystal. IILD led to more reliable
lasers, ideal for DVD players and CD-RAM drives. In 1990 he created
native aluminum oxide technology, which has made vertical-cavity
surface emitting lasers (VCSELs) practical for copy machines, laser
printers and other communications.
Holonyak, born in Zeigler, Ill., received his B.S. (1950), M.S.
(1951), and Ph.D. (1954) in electrical engineering at the University
of Illinois. Following military service and work at Bell Labs and
General Electric, he returned to his alma mater in 1963 at the persuasion
of his mentor, John Bardeen. He continues his research there today,
and has advised 60 graduate students—eight have been elected
to the National Academy of Engineering and many are now leaders
in the optoelectronics industry.
Holonyak, who holds 31 patents, is a member of the National Academy
of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), among others. Holonyak has received
two honorary degrees, plus awards including the National Medal of
Science (1990), Global Energy International Prize (2003), National
Medal of Technology (2003) and IEEE Medal of Honor (2003).
On April 20, 2005 Holonyak received the Order of Lincoln Medallion
in Edwardsville, IL, which is awarded annually to six outstanding
people who were born or have lived in Illinois. Holonyak was recognized
for his light-emitting diode and semiconductor laser technology.