Work in Colored Lights Nets Millennium Prize

Professor Shuji Nakamura from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was awarded the $1.2 million Millennium Technology Prize for inventing blue, green and white LEDs and a blue laser. The prize, which is backed by the Finnish government, was awarded for the second time (it's biennial) since it was established in 2002.

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The world's largest technology prize will be awarded to a scientist who invested ultra-efficient lighting. Shuji Nakamura figured out how to create LEDs that give off blue, green and white light instead of the familiar red glow you might have noticed from your VCR controls. Finland's Millennium Prize Foundation said today it will give the inventor a prize worth more than $1.2 million.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Shuji Nakamura was born in Japan and it seemed like he was destined for a career in obscurity. He worked as an engineer at a small, rural company. Engineers at the industry giants were working hard to develop super efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, that could produce useful blue light. But Nakamura felt he couldn't possibly compete.

Dr. SHUJI NAKAMURA (University of California Santa Barbara): No, no, never. I never expected to develop a blue LED. Ever.

HARRIS: But he in fact succeeded in winning this high stakes race. And not only did he produce new semiconductors that could produce blue light, he also invented diodes that could glow bright green and, most useful of all, LEDs that can produce white light. These are essentially computer chips that produce light directly. There's no glowing filament involved so they are very efficient.

Today, Nakamura is at the University of California Santa Barbara and those green LEDs are used around the world in traffic lights. The white LEDs provide the light for the color screens in cell phones. And if that's not enough, Nakamura also invented the blue laser diode.

Dr. NAKAMURA: Oh, blue laser diode is used for the next generation DVD.

HARRIS: So soon, Sony and Toshiba DVD players will be based on Nakamura's technology. Finland's Millennium Prize Foundation was certainly impressed by Nakamura's amazing output. Today the foundation announced that Nakamura would be the second scientist to win its million-euro technology prize. Steven DenBaars, who works with Nakamura at UCSB, says these inventions can really change the world.

Dr. STEVEN DENBAARS (University of California Santa Barbara): The Department of Energy has actually estimated that you could alleviate the need for 133 new power stations by the year 2025 if we implement white solid-state lighting.

HARRIS: A solid-state light consumes just four watts to produce as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb today. The catch right now is the price. These lights cost about $50 a pop. But there's hope the price will fall once they are mass produced. Nakamura believes they will someday provide light to people in the developing world. In fact, he is donating part of his prize to organizations that are working to make that so.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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