Nick Holonyak – Father of LED Lighting

Nick Holonyak

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Street lights. Smart phone and tablet screens. Exit signs. Elevator buttons. Video games. Traffic signals. Flash lights. Roadways. Park paths. Home lighting, including LED chandeliers, LED pendants, LED desk lamps, LED floor lamps, LED architectural lighting, and much more.

They’re everywhere. Everywhere you go, it’s impossible not to come across a device that uses LEDs, and we have Nick Holonyak to thank. With 41 patents, Holonyak is responsible for other innovative creations like the dimmer switch, as well as the red-light semiconductor laser (laser diode). However, his most notable work redefined energy efficiency. Conceived on October 9th, 1962, marking the beginning of a new age in technology, the LED was born.

Growing up in Zeigler, Illinois, Holonyak’s love for electricity and electrical light came from working with his father on his Ford Model T where he would conjure up different ways to keep the engine running. He didn’t want the life his father had, one of hard physical labor in a coal mine. At 15, he worked on the IC (Illinois Central) Railroad to later afford college. He pursued a life of education, attending the University of Illinois where he studied electrical engineering.

Upon getting his bachelors and masters, he pursued a doctorate in the same field. Holonyak worked with two time noble prize winner, John Bardeen (inventor of the transistor), and he later became Bardeen’s first graduate student (1952). With a degree in hand, Holonyak traveled to Bell Labs in New Jersey (1954) where he began developing silicon-diffused transistors and silicon thyristors.

Like all great inventors, Holonyak had to push forward, and began a career working with GE (General Electric) (1957). The company urged him to work with silicon to ensure revenue, but he sternly insisted on working with III-V semiconductor materials. Threatened with losing his job, Holonyak continued developing alloy III – V crystals using gallium arsenide phosphide, which would emit a visible red light. Thus the first visible spectrum light-emitting diode (LED) had come to life. With this accomplishment, Holonyak returned to the University of Illinois (1963) and joined the Electrical Engineering Department, where he guided thousands of students in further developing the LED.

An inspiration to inventors everywhere, Holonyak has kept busy, building bigger and better things. Working with Milton Feng, a former student of his, they are creating light – emitting transistors that are all integrated onto a single chip, which could revolutionize high-speed communication, running up to 100 times faster than today’s computers.

1 of 13 to receive both medals, Holonyak has been awarded the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology. He has also been honored with the Russian Global Energy Prize and the MIT Lemelson Prize.

Unfortunately, in 2014, Holonyak did not receive the Nobel Prize in physics. Instead, inventors Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the prize for their development of the blue light-emitting diode, which in turn allowed the creation of white LED light. While he was not recognized for his invention of the original LED, Holonyak’s pioneering efforts made the world of LED possible.

» Read our article on the properties of LED lighting for more information.

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