A Japanese Scientist Lights Up the World

Shuji Nakamura never meant to change the world. All the Japanese scientist wanted was to do some original research, write a few academic papers, make his presence felt. But he ended up revolutionizing the world of light.

In 1993, working in isolation at Nichia Chemical, an obscure firm located in the Japanese hinterland, Nakamura invented the bright blue light-emitting diode. It was the first step on the road to a revolutionary new light source that promises to replace the carbon filament bulb patented by Thomas Edison in 1880, which wastes 95 percent of its energy as heat.

The role of simple light bulbs as culprits in global warming has assumed increasing importance over the last two to three years, with Australia becoming the first industrialized country to ban the bulb and Cuba and Venezuela phasing them out. The European Union is expected to follow. Eliminating the standard bulb could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 800 million tonnes per year across the world.

The trouble is that the incandescent bulb’s most likely replacement, the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL, has its own drawbacks. Despite the fact that CFLs uses 80 percent less energy and last indefinitely, they are up to eight times more expensive, produce a harsh light that makes human skin look unhealthy and can’t be dimmed. CFLs also contain toxic mercury vapor, which makes disposal difficult.

The light-emitting diode, or LED, looks like a better bet. LEDs were invented in 1962 and thirty years later, you could get bright red ones, but not bright blue, or green. This meant that you could not produce white (which is made by adding colors, like the red, green, and blue dots on your TV screen).

The story of Shuji Nakamura and how he invented bright blue LEDs, is a classic study of innovation. In addition to Nakamura’s determination, the other key ingredient is that his boss ‑ Nichia’s founder Nobuo Ogawa – was prepared to bet big on his star researcher’s ability to come up with the goods. For years, Nakamura kept at it, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After his first breakthrough, he followed up with a series of other innovations ‑ bright green LEDs, white ones, even brighter blue ones. For the next six years the rest of the world ate his dust.

Then in 1999, Nakamura shocked the world again, decamping from Nichia, where he had worked for 20 years, to become a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The breakup was acrimonious: Nichia sued Nakamura for leaking trade secrets (the suit was dismissed). Nakamura counter-sued Nichia claiming unfair compensation on an invention that had netted the company billions of dollars. He was paid just 20,000 yen – US$180 – for the patent he filed on his breakthrough invention. The suit was eventually settled for 840 million yen (US$7 million), at that time the largest ever paid by a Japanese company.

Nakamura’s invention ‑ High-brightness LEDs ‑ are even more energy efficient than fluorescents. Their light can be blended to produce warm white light which resembles that of incandescent light. LEDs are also robust, non-toxic, and effectively last forever.

High-brightness LEDs are already ubiquitous. They are in your cellphone (as backlights for the screen and keypad), your computer (those flashing blue lights so beloved of geeks), and your car (center brake lights and interior illumination). Soon, they will be in your house, initially as a replacement for halogen downlights, then for every other kind of light as well. Builders in California have already begun implementing LED lighting fixtures in their high-end homes.

Fourteen years after Nakamura’s initial breakthrough, the market for high-brightness LEDs is growing an annual rate of 17 percent. It is expected to hit US$9 billion in 2010. General illumination is the fastest-growing sector of the market, outpacing mobile applications and other sectors such as electronic billboards and signals.

The growing billions of LEDs manufactured annually are mostly made in Asia. Nichia is still the leading manufacturer of high-brightness blue, green, and white LEDs, with a share of over 20 percent. Nichia’s Taiwanese licensee, Epistar, is coming on strong.

The success of Taiwanese LED makers like Epistar has not gone unnoticed on China’s mainland. Today, China serves is a massive market for LED products. Witness the huge outdoor display screens and gaudy color-changing buildings like Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower that light up Chinese cityscapes at night.

But the Chinese government has also recognized the enormous energy-saving potential of LEDs. It has been estimated that if, over the next ten years, LEDs were to take 40 percent of China’s lighting market, the annual saving would be 100 billion kilowatt hours. That is more than the output of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest electric power generating plant.

Beijing has designated light emitting diodes as one of 11 key technologies in the battle to cut demand for electricity. A nationwide program was established in 2003 to develop and commercialize the technology. In addition to the national government, it involves 11 regional governments, 15 national research institutes, and more than 50 commercial firms such as Dalian Lumei Optoelectronics.

Chinese manufacturers like Shenzhen Jiawei Industries have discovered that LEDs are a natural match for solar cells. They export millions of stand-alone lights for use in illuminating the gardens of wealthy westerners.

This same combination, with the addition of a battery, has profound implications for the one-third of humanity which, having no access to electricity, is forced to depend on kerosene bottle lamps for illumination. Kerosene lamps are smoky, dirty, and easily knocked over, causing horrible burns.

LEDs could also bring safe and affordable lighting to hundreds of millions of people in countries like India who live off the electricity grid. Substituting a locally-assembled solar-driven LED system purchased on micro-credit can have truly transformative educational and economic potential . For example, in Nepal and Sri Lanka, where the first trials of such systems are taking place under the auspices of Canada’s Light Up the World foundation.

Village children there gain clean light by which to do their homework, parents boost their income through cottage industries. An added benefit is that since, unlike kerosene, LED lighting systems are a non-recurring expense, families have extra cash to spend.

Asked which of the consequences of his inventions gives him most satisfaction, Shuji Nakamura replies, “Helping to prevent the effects of global warming and helping the people of third-world countries by giving them a safe lighting system.”

Bob Johnstone was formerly technology correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. His new book, Brilliant! Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology, is published by Prometheus in April.