LEaDing the Way to Energy-Efficient Light Sources

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis year, three Japanese names were added to the list of Nobel Prize laureates, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the Nobel laureates every year in the fields of Physics and Chemistry, awarded the prize to the three for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), an energy-saving method of lighting. The invention of blue LED’s was crucial to the development of LED lighting in general. The basic concept of an LED lamp is that it emits extremely narrow waves of different colored lights, which mix together in order to create white light. The principle is similar to that of spinning a wheel painted in all three primary colors: if you spin it fast enough, it will appear to become white. LEDs take this a step further and turn these colors of light into white light. However, the creation of blue LED had remained a challenge for three decades and hindered the development of LED technology; the issue was described as the “biggest hurdle in the field” and “impossible” because it did not respond to the same chemical that red and green lights required. This is where the three Japanese physicists and now Nobel Prize Laureates made a breakthrough.

In 1989, Isamu Akasaki was a professor at Nagoya University and had been doing research with one of his graduate students, Hiroshi Amano since the early 1970’s. Together, the two discovered the chemical that was needed to create blue LED lights, and paved the way for the practical application of the technology. This last step was finally accomplished in 1993 by the third laureate, Shuji Nakamura, who now teaches at University of California, Santa Barbara. The invention, however, was welcomed with controversy. At the time, Nakamura worked for Nichia Corp, and because the patent for his discovery was registered under his company’s name and not his, he received a bonus of only 20,000 Japanese Yen – a frightening 180 dollars. Later, Nakamura sued the company and demanded proper compensation for his work; he finally settled on a payment of 844 million Yen, which was still inadequate to compensate for what he brought about.

Such occurrences, unfortunately, are common in the field of science and technology in Japan because of the nature of a law elaborated by the Japanese government called the Patent Law. This law stipulates that companies are to be awarded patents for inventions by their employees, and can then decide on the reward to offer the individual inventors. However, the implications of the Patent Law go beyond financial rewards. This law creates an entrepreneurial climate hostile to researchers, in which individuals can be scared that they will not receive proper credit for their inventions. Nakamura has heavily criticized the Japanese government for its stance on the issue, and rightly so; the origins of patent laws go back to the 17th century, so a highly developed country like Japan should recognize the intellectual property of its citizens instead of awarding that property to corporations.

Because of this law, Japan has experienced a brain drain in recent years with highly educated individuals countries more welcoming of entrepreneurship and research like the United States. Indeed, not only does Nakamura now teach at the University of California, Santa Barbara but he is also a naturalized American citizen, citing in an interview how much easier it is to receive funding for research in the United States compared to Japan as one of the motivations behind his departure. However, no matter how bitter he may be about the state of Japan’s research climate, Nakamura remains committed to the results of his discovery; in the same interview, he emphasized that he wanted to focus on the good that his invention has brought about, a noble intention after a tough path to the Nobel Prize.