This year’s Nobel Prize in physical will be awarded to three scientists for the breakthrough that the white LED light was possible to produce, which builds a billion-dollar industry and change how we beat back darkness.
The prize is bestowed on Isamu Akasaki at the Meijo University and Hiroshi Amano at the Nagoya University in Japan, and on Shuji Nakamura at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Nakamura was working at a chemical company in Japan, Nichia Chemicals. When he figured out how to create blue light-emitting diodes, it gave out white light when coated with a yellow phosphor. The white light could also be produced by combining blue LED with the previously developed red and green LEDs.
The start of a new era in lighting was marked by the commercial production of white LED in the 1990s, which has been dominated by incandescent bulbs for over a century. LED lights are more efficient to use electricity, which is expected to last at least 10 years if not 15 or longer, compared with a few years that conventional bulbs can muster. Those benefits make LED lighting quite attractive at a time when policy makers and private businesses in many parts of the world are looking for ways to cut not only their energy cost but also their carbon footprint.
Sales of packaged LEDs including the LED chips, a wire, encapsulation material and a lens, reached $17.7 billion in 2013 and are looking forward to hitting $19.8 billion worldwide this year, according to IHS Technology. The technology is projected to account for 32% of the bulb sales this year.
The Nobel committee called “revolutionary” of the three researchers blue LED invention and said in a press release, “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”
Akasaki Amano and Nakamura will share the $1.1 million prize, which will be handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10. Soraa, the co-founder of Nakamura, is a venture-backed LED lamp developer in California.
Before white LED bulbs came along, LED lights were mostly used as indicator lights for cars, traffic signals, electronics or outdoor equipment. While white LED production presented in the market in the 1990s, it wasn’t until in the past five years or so when costs came down enough to make LED lamps more affordable to consumers and businesses. Even so, they are still more expensive than incandescent bulbs. Consumers have to be willing to spend more upfront to reap the energy savings of LED lighting.
Meanwhile, LED technology is changing how we light up our streets and highways. People may not give much thought and pay much attention to street lights, but the invention of those tall, overhead lamps has dramatically changed human behavior. Those lights allow people to extend their daytime activities into the night and travel widely and through remote places after sun down.
Actually, the heavy dependence on artificial light has triggered criticism among people, from amateur astronomers to health researchers, about the environmental and health impact. Bright street lights not only make it difficult to see the stars, but also stop the feeding and other behaviors of nighttime animals. Concerns over the so-called “light pollution” have rallied people to go before city councils to advocate for lighting designs that will minimize the amount of light’s shining upward. Solving all these problems spells business opportunities for the lighting industry, from creating even more energy efficient bulbs to managing lights so that they brighten only when needed.
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