LED Pioneers Win 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

For making low-cost, efficient lighting possible, LED pioneers and Nobel laureates Isamu Akasaki and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the world’s most prestigious engineering prize.

AsianScientist (Feb. 5, 2021) – For changing the way we illuminate the world, light-emitting diode (LED) inventors Professor Isamu Akasaki from Meijo University and Professor Shuji Nakamura from the University of California, Berkeley are among the winners of the 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

From dazzling digital displays to traffic lights, LEDs are found practically everywhere. Compared to traditional incandescent lighting, LEDs are up to 75 percent more efficient and can last 25 times longer. With the looming threat of climate change, LEDs are also set to play an increasingly important role in reducing our collective energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

In recognition of the revolutionary impact of LEDs, Akasaki and Nakamura along with Professor Nick Holonyak Jr, Dr. M George Craford and Professor Russell Dupuis were awarded this year’s Queen Elizabeth Prize—considered the world’s most prestigious engineering accolade. Previously, Akasaki and Nakamura were jointly awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing blue LEDs.

Unlike incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, LEDs convert electricity directly into light. When a current is applied to layers of semiconductor materials within a LED, these materials emit a particular wavelength of light depending on the materials’ chemical makeup. Aluminum gallium arsenide, for instance, produces red light, whereas gallium phosphide can produce orange or even green light.

While these red and green LEDs have been around since the 1950s, the blue LED remained elusive for three decades despite considerable efforts from the academe and industry. For Akasaki, Nakamura and fellow Nobel laureate Hiroshi Amano, gallium nitride proved to be the key ingredient in finally producing blue LEDs. Their discovery paved the way for the production of white light—which we now see on our screens and in our homes on a daily basis.

“I was able to do what I did in the 1980s, because of what had come before. 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,” commented Nakamura.

The winners will be formally honored at a ceremony later this year, where they will receive an £1 million prize and corresponding trophy.

“The impact of this innovation is not to be understated. It makes lighting a lot cheaper and more accessible for emerging economies…It is not only an extreme engineering achievement, but a societal impact that has a significant impact on the environment,” said Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Chair of the Queen Elizabeth Prize Judging Panel.


Source: Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering; Illustration: Shelly Liew/Asian Scientist Magazine
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