Nick Holonyak honored for inventing the LED

Feb. 16, 2008
The Illinois professor Nick Holonyak is to be inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame
Nick Holonyak Jr., a John Bardeen Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois, will be inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Holonyak was selected for his invention of the first practical LED, in addition to the body of work on transistor and laser electronics generated over the span of his career (55+ years).

“Nick Holonyak’s inventions, like all great works of scientific inspiration, have changed our world,” said Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Urbana campus. “Think, for a moment, of the impact of LEDs. Today, they are ubiquitous, in games, household products, medical equipment, automobiles and countless other applications. Honoring Nick Holonyak’s inventions is yet one more recognition of the extraordinary significance of his work.”

Founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations, the National Inventors Hall of Fame is the premier not-for-profit organization in America dedicated to recognizing, honoring and encouraging invention and creativity. Thomas Edison was the first inducted in 1973.

This year’s inductees include Robert Adler (deceased), who invented the television remote control; Ruth Benerito, who invented wrinkle-free cotton; Amar Bose, who developed superb sound technology; and Otis McIntire (deceased), who invented Styrofoam® brand foam. The induction ceremony will be held May 2-3 in Akron, Ohio.

Among his other inventions and discoveries, Holonyak developed the first practical LED in 1962, and the fundamental proof that the LED is the “ultimate lamp.” Today, these long-lasting, low-heat light sources illuminate everything from alarm clocks to the NASDAQ billboard in New York’s Times Square, as well as the New York New Year’s Eve “ball drop.”

LEDs produce more lumens per watt than both incandescent and halogen lighting sources, making them more environmentally friendly and cost effective. The LED’s long life span (more than 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb) makes it ideal for use in automotive dashboards, taillights and headlights, as well as in traffic signals and consumer electronics.

The son of Slavic immigrants who settled in Southern Illinois, Holonyak earned his bachelor’s degree in 1950, his master’s in 1951, and his doctorate in 1954, all in electrical engineering from Illinois. Holonyak was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel laureate John Bardeen, an Illinois professor who invented the transistor. An early researcher in semiconductor electronics, Holonyak gained eminence through his numerous inventions and contributions to advances in semiconductor materials and devices.

Before joining the Illinois faculty in 1963, Holonyak worked for Bell Telephone Labs, where he helped develop silicon-diffused transistor technology. Several years later, while at General Electric, he invented the first practical light-emitting diode and the first semiconductor laser to operate in the visible spectrum. He also developed the first electronic devices in III-V compound semiconductor alloys (III and V referring to places in the periodic table of the elements), and is the inventor of the basic silicon device used in household light-dimmer switches.

At Illinois, Holonyak and his students developed the first quantum-well laser, creating a practical laser for fiber-optic communications, compact disc players, medical diagnosis, surgery, ophthalmology and many other applications.

In the early 1980s, his group introduced impurity-induced layer disordering, which converts layers of a semiconductor structure into an alloy that has important electronic properties. In one use, this discovery solved the problem of a laser’s low reliability. Such lasers exhibit enhanced performance and durability, making them ideal for DVD players and other optical storage equipment.

During the last decade, Holonyak and his students invented a process that enables the formation of high-quality oxide layers on any aluminum-bearing III-V compound semiconductor. The oxide process has had a major impact on vertical-cavity surface emitting lasers, making them practical for such applications as optical and data communications. His current research focuses on transistor lasers. Though still in the early stages of development, transistor lasers could dramatically improve the speed and availability of electronic communications.

Among Holonyak’s many awards are the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004), Global Energy Prize from Russia (2003), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor (2003), the U.S. National Medal of Technology (2002), the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America (2001), the Japan Prize (1995), the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1993), the Optical Society’s Charles Hard Townes Award (1992) and the U.S. National Medal of Science (1990).

Holonyak is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the IEEE, the Optical Society of America and is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Eight of his 60 doctoral students are members of the National Academy of Engineering.