The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura.
The three researchers won the award for their invention of diodes that emit blue light, “which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources,” the prize-awarding committee announced in Stockholm today (see press release).
Combining blue, green and red diodes creates a long-lasting, efficient white light. But despite earnest industry efforts to work out how to get gallium nitride-based semiconductors to shoot out blue beams, it took until the 1990s before Akasaki and Amano – working together at Nagoya University in Japan – and Nakamura, working at a company in Tokushima called Nichia Chemicals, made the breakthrough.
Nakamura, like the other winners, was born in Japan. But in 2000, he left the country to take up an academic position at the University of Santa Barbara in California, and is now a US citizen. At the time, he said that the United States offered better working conditions: “Japanese industrial research and development may be on its way to becoming obsolete.” He later sued Nichia Chemicals over the compensation he received for inventing the blue LED technology, in January 2005 eventually settling for ¥840 million ($7.6 million at the time).
Scientific American have a profile of Nakamura, written in 2000, which reveals how hard he had to push to develop the technology at Nichia Chemicals:
In January 1988 [Nakamura] bypassed his boss and marched into the office of Nichia’s CEO, Nobuo Ogawa, with a list of demands. He wanted about $3.3 million in research funding to work on blue-light devices and also a year off to study metallorganic chemical vapor deposition, or MOCVD, at the University of Florida. MOCVD was then emerging as the technology of choice for producing exotic semiconductors, such as the ones capable of emitting blue light.
Nakamura’s move would probably raise a few eyebrows at most in a small American start-up company, but it was absolutely outrageous in the feudal, seniority-based Japanese system. “I was very mad,” he explains, when asked what prompted his ultimatum. “I wanted to quit Nichia. I didn’t care about anything. It was OK for them to fire me. I was not afraid of anything.”
Much to his amazement, Ogawa simply agreed to all his demands.
Nature full news story on the prize is here.