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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Shedding light on the world
By Jane Qiu
Helsinki

Professor Shuji Nakamura
Professor Nakamura's inventions are used around the world
The 2006 Millennium Technology Prize has been awarded to Professor Shuji Nakamura, the inventor who is said to have kicked started the "blue laser revolution".

Professor Nakamura stunned the world more than 10 years ago with his inventions of light-emitting semiconductors: blue, green and white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and the blue laser diode.

Blue light has since opened up many opportunities. For example, blue LEDs are used in full-colour flat-screen displays, while blue lasers will change the face of information technology, some say.

The 1m Euro (680,000) prize, presented by the Finnish President Tarja Halonen, recognised these developments.

As the world's largest technology award, the Millennium Technology Prize awards outstanding achievement aimed at promoting the quality of life and sustainable development.

"Professor Nakamura's technological innovations in the field of semiconductor materials and devices are groundbreaking," said Jaakko Ihamuotila, chairman of the Millennium Prize Foundation.

Blue beams

Increasingly, computers and communications are relying on light to send, store and process information. Devices that work with light are much faster and can store more data.

Lasers are key components of many of these devices. CD, DVD players, and storage systems all utilise these intense focused beams of light.

Professor Nakamura's work is making important contributions toward improving the quality of life and the health of our planet
Henry T Yang, University of California

But all lasers are not equals.

The shorter the wavelength of the laser's light, the smaller the width of the focused beam. As the beam is responsible for reading and writing data onto a disc, for example; the smaller it is, the more densely packed the data can be.

Professor Nakamura's breakthrough was in developing a blue laser source.

This has a shorter wavelength than its infrared and red equivalent (the common light sources used in today's standard DVD and CD players, for example), and so it represents a big step forward in storage capacity.

Going from infrared to blue quadruples the amount of data that can be stored in a given area.

Currently, companies such as Sony, Toshiba and Samsung are exploiting Professor Nakamura's invention in the next generation of DVD players, which promise better sound and high-definition pictures.

Light advance

Professor Nakamura's inventions are also starting to have an impact on another industry.

Blue LED (Copyright: Randy Lamb, UCSB)
Blue LEDs are used in the latest generation of DVD player
His white LEDs combine blue, green and red LEDs, and could one day revolutionise the lighting industry.

Some already compare the developments made possible by Professor Nakamura with those of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the tungsten lightbulb.

A light using the LEDs, known as a solid-state light, consumes just four watts of electricity to produce as much light as a 60-watt incandescent lightbulb.

"It is estimated that it is possible to alleviate the need for 133 nuclear power stations in the US by the year 2025 if white solid-state lighting is implemented," said Professor Nakamura.

Bulbs using Nakamura's semiconductor materials are now widely used in traffic lights around the world. They are expected to last over 10 years, whereas conventional bulbs last just 6 months.

World illumination

The power savings could be huge. Currently, keeping the UK's traffic lights running with conventional bulbs requires the equivalent energy of two medium-sized power stations.

The new light sources are also ideally suited to run off solar power and are therefore ideal for use in remote areas of developing countries.

Professor Nakamura hopes that as a result of his work there will be light in parts of the world where today there is not even electricity.

"The University of California has a motto: let there be light," said Professor Nakamura. "It could also serve as a motto for my own research."

He plans to donate part of the prize to organisations that help to implement solid-state lighting in developing countries, such as the Light Up The World Foundation or Engineering Without Borders.

But the benefits of his LEDs are not just restricted to high-tech gadgets and bringing light to the world.

The blue LED's ultraviolet properties could also provide a cheap and efficient way to clean water or counter pollution.

"Professor Nakamura's work is making important contributions toward improving the quality of life and the health of our planet," said Henry T Yang, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara.


SEE ALSO
New honour for the web's inventor
15 Apr 04 |  Technology
Maths genius declines top prize
22 Aug 06 |  Science/Nature
LEDs work like butterflies' wings
18 Nov 05 |  Science/Nature

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