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3 Win Nobel In Physics For New Light Source


We have the names of the winners of this year's Nobel prize in physics. This year's prize goes to an invention that may well affect the room you're in right now. It may have lit the way as you went to brush your teeth. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is covering this story. Geoff, good morning.


INSKEEP: So who are the winners?

BRUMFIEL: Three Japanese-born researchers - Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura - for inventing the blue light-emitting diode, or LED.

INSKEEP: OK, LED, you've gotten in some terminology I've heard before. But what is this one particularly?

BRUMFIEL: Well, believe it or not, I actually have the Nobel Prize here in the studio with me. At NPR we've got these really sleek, modern-looking lamps.


BRUMFIEL: It doesn't do a lot of good, I guess, to have it in for radio, but when you turn it on, you get this really bright, brilliant light. And if you look underneath, you'll see these three, tiny, little patches that are emitting light. And it's coming from a semiconductor circuit; it's related to a transistor. And so basically what it does is a little electrical current goes through it, and it generates bright light. Now, red and green had been around for decades. We've known how to do that with the light-emitting diode, but for a long time no one was able to make blue.

INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute because what I actually want, in most rooms anyway, is white light. And in order to get that, I have to have all three of those primary colors, is that right?

BRUMFIEL: That's absolutely right, yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. So why was it so hard to get blue?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it turns out it's all down to the particular material you use to make the LED, and it was a matter of finding the right material. In this case, it was something called gallium nitride. It's also gallium nitride turns out to be a kind of hard material to work with, so all three researchers contributed to finding gallium nitride and then figuring out how to make really brilliant, blue light with it.

INSKEEP: OK. This is impressive, and I'm all in favor of blue lights, or white light for that matter, but what makes this so significant that it'd be worthy of a Nobel Prize?

BRUMFIEL: About a quarter of the world's energy goes into just making light so that we can see when it's dark outside. And we've stuck to the incandescent bulb for a long time, but it's really, really inefficient. I mean, if you think about when you touch a bulb after it's been off, it's hot, right? And that is all wasted energy. That's energy that hasn't gone into light. The LED is superefficient; it doesn't generate that heat. It also lasts up to 100 times longer than a conventional light bulb, and the price has finally come way down. For a long time, they were expensive, but actually I just bought LED lighting for my entire home, and it was pretty reasonable. And I've seen savings on my energy bill. I mean, I've got to say that they're just awesome.

INSKEEP: OK. So awesome. So...

BRUMFIEL: I guess I'm kind of a dork for LED lighting.

INSKEEP: That's OK. It's good. We need dorks for all kinds of important things like that. So this has saved money for a lot of people. It's saving energy. Has it made the winners a lot of money?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's interesting because Shuji Nakamura, in particular, was working for a commercial company when he invented the blue LED light. And traditionally in Japan a researcher is basically just supposed to work for a salary and the company makes all the money. Nakamura decided that wasn't good enough, so he actually sued his former employer for a cut of the profits and was awarded around $8 million of the over half-a-billion dollars his company made. That was really revolutionary at the time because, as I said, Japanese researchers tended to just work for salaries. And so he's also changed Japanese society a little bit by doing this.

INSKEEP: Well, Geoff, I'm glad you got a chance to come and dork-out over LEDs.


INSKEEP: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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