The 2014 Nobel Prize For Physics Goes To…

Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for the invention, development and integration of ‘efficient blue light-emitting diodes’ (LEDs) into current and future global infrastructures.

This year’s prize was jointly awarded to each researcher for work that will see substantial improvements in efficiency of currently used lighting sources; the work will produce both ‘bright’ and ‘energy-saving’ white light sources that should see heavy reductions in future power consumption.

The diodes in question are required to excite a phosphor material: when the phosphor becomes excited it radiates both green and red spectral light, which, when mixed with the light generated by blue LEDs combine to produce white light—this light can then be utilised for various applications that are currently provided by traditional, but highly inefficient, incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes.

The benefits of LED systems are extensive, and include: increased life expectancy, operational efficiency, and as production becomes more established, cost too.

Currently, it is estimated that 20-30% of electricity output within industrialised economies is consumed by lighting (residential & commercial properties, highways, etc). The whole sale implementation of the new LED technology should reduce these requirements, as LED systems have been shown to be ten times more efficient than current light generating devices, and with each LED lasting for approximately ‘100,000 hours’, cost reductions are substantial—because of this, agencies are budgeting heavily to replace their current lighting arrangements.

The first LEDs where produced in the 1950s/60s and generated red and green light; the development of blue light, however, has proved to be more challenging and has taken research to the very heart of quantum mechanics: GaN-based alloys (Gallium-Nitride) have been developed, produced and integrated into ‘multi-layer structures’ such as, ‘heterojunctions’ and ‘quantum wells.’ In addition, the developement of higher quality crystals and the ability to ‘control p-doping in high bandgap semi-conductors’ has also been required—this has seen the eventual production of Blue LEDs take three decades to come to fruition.

As stated, these new efficient light sources are being invested in by governments and commercial enterprises, and are currently being installed globally in a gradual replacement programme—this will see a much needed reduction in global energy consumption, which in a modern context, is truely a ‘Nobel’ achievement.

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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