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LEDs and Lasers

Holonyak Nick Holonyak, Jr. created in the 1960s the first light-emitting diode, or LED, which is the technology behind the displays used in watches, many electronics such as televisions and alarm clocks, even the NASDAQ marquis in New York.

Holonyak was born Nov. 3, 1928 in Zeigler, IL. He attended the University of Illinois, receiving his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering in 1950, 1951, and 1954, respectively. While at the University of Illinois he received some training by two-time Nobel Prize recipient John Bardeen, a pioneer in transistors who would become a lifelong friend and mentor.

Holonyak’s first job was working on the technical staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories, from where he moved on to served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1955 to 1957. That year he joined General Electric’s Advanced Semiconductor Laboratory in Syracuse, New York. There he was credited with the invention of the first dimmer switch, and he made a number of significant advances in semiconductor technology. In 1962, his research focused on ways to use semiconductors to generate visible light. The result of his work was the development of the gallium arsenide phosphide alloy, which made possible his creation of the LED and the first visible semiconductor laser.

These early LEDs were characterized by red light. Today, of course, LEDs are available in a variety of colors. They are much more efficient than incandescent bulbs, as well as more ecologically sound and less expensive. In recent years they have had a major impact on the lighting, consumer electronics, and communications industries and have become a nearly $2 billion market in the U.S. alone. LEDs are behind remote controls’ ability to transmit information, the formation of images on jumbo television screens, some automobile headlights and brakelights, and they are widely used in traffic lights. Holonyak and other researchers are currently working on LEDs that produce white light, so that one day they could be used extensively for interior lighting.

In 1963 Holonyak left G.E. and accepted a professorship at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he continues to teach and conduct research in electrical engineering. He is now the John Bardeen Endowed Chair Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics. He is also a member of the university’s Center for Advanced Study. Working with students he has made a number of breakthroughs including his 1977 development of the first quantum-well semiconductor laser. These lasers have enabled advancements in such fields as fiber optic communications, materials processing and surgery.

Holonyak holds 31 patents, has authored two books and nearly 400 technical articles. He is a member of many distinguished organizations and scientific boards, including the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). His numerous international awards include the 1990 National Medal of Science, a 2003 National Medal of Technology, and a 2003 IEEE Medal of Honor. In 2004, he was the recipient of the tenth annual $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

[June 2004]

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