Lemelson-MIT Recognizes Inventor of LED

By THEO EMERY

Associated Press, April 21, 2004

BOSTON -- When Nick Holonyak Jr. set out to create a new kind of visible lighting using semiconductor alloys, his colleagues thought he was "nuttier than hell." Today, his discovery of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are used in everything from DVDs to alarm clocks to the NASDAQ stock billboard in New York. Dozens of his students have continued his work, developing lighting used in traffic lights and other everyday technology.

On Friday, Holonyak will receive the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize at a ceremony in Washington. This marks the 10th year that the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has given the award to prominent inventors.

"Anytime you get an award, big or little, it's always a surprise," he said.

Holonyak, 75, was a student of John Bardeen, an inventor of the transistor, in the early 1950s. After graduate school, he worked at Bell Labs, where he was part of a team that developed integrated circuits. He later went to General Electric, where he invented a switch now widely used in house dimmer switches and power tools.

Later, he started looking into how semiconductors could be used to generate light. But while his colleagues were looking at how to generate invisible infrared light, he wanted to generate visible light. The LEDs he invented in 1962 now last about 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs, and are more environmentally friendly and cost effective.

Holonyak, now a professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics at the University of Illinois, said he suspected that LEDs would become as commonplace as they are today, but didn't realize how many uses they would have.

"You don't know in the beginning. You think you're doing something important, you think it's worth doing, but you really can't tell what the big payoff is going to be, and when, and how. You just don't know," he said.

The Lemelson-MIT Program also recognized Edith Flanigen, 75, with the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her work on a new generation of "molecular sieves," porous crystals that can separate molecules by size. Flanigen found the first practical method for manufacturing a molecular sieve called zeolite Y, which is now widely used in petroleum refining and petrochemical processes.

Flanigen's work at Union Carbide, where two of her sisters also worked in the 1950s, took her in some unexpected directions. She also found a way to manufacture synthetic emeralds, which the company turned into a line of jewelry called the "Quintessa Collection."