Blue light-emitting diodes earn their inventors a Nobel Prize

Blue light-emitting diodes earn their inventors a Nobel Prize

Tuesday was a great day for the inventors of the blue light-emitting diode (LED), who were named winners of the prestigious Nobel Prize for physics. Their invention made it possible to create bright white light in a much more energy-efficient way, leading to long-lasting, energy-sipping LEDs in all kinds of products, including the everyday light bulb, the street lights illuminating America’s neighborhoods and highways, and the backlights in flat panel TVs and laptop computers.

The switch from inefficient incandescent light bulbs to LEDs has just begun in the U.S. and is on track to cut our nation’s electricity bill by more than $13 billion annually and save enough electricity each year to power all the homes in Texas. Those of us working to convert our economy to a clean energy future and reduce emissions of climate-changing pollution are deeply indebted to and proud of these three brilliant scientists who won this award: Professor Shuji Nakamura at the University of California-Santa Barbara and his two colleagues from Japan — Isamu Akasaki, Meijo University and Nagoya University, and Hiroshi Amano, Nagoya University.

How blue helps makes white

The secret sauce behind making white light in an efficient way involves mixing red, blue and green light together. While red and green LEDs have existed for a long time, the Nobel Prize-winning physicists reached a breakthrough in semiconductor science about 20 years ago that resulted in the blue LED and eventual mass production of energy-saving LED lighting products that give off white light.

Many of these products use 80 percent less power and last 25 times longer than the products they are replacing, such as the 125-year-old incandescent light bulb that hadn’t changed since the days of Thomas Edison.

LEDs can help those without electricity

Because LEDs are so efficient and only require small amounts of power to produce useful light, new solar-based LED lighting products are being introduced to developing countries. This is a really big deal as more than 1.5 billion people around the world do not have access to electricity yet soon will have clean sources of light to replace their kerosene lamps, allowing families to cook and read with lighting that does not cause them to breathe harmful particulates into their lungs. 

To Tuesday’s Nobel Prize-winning scientists who invented the blue LED that jumpstarted the transformation to more environmentally and economically sustainable lighting, a big "thank you" on behalf of our planet and its citizens.

This blog first appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog and is reprinted with permission. Photo of blue LELD light tapes by nikkytok via Shutterstock.