Led light

'I could easily win the race, I was almost alone in the race'

Shuji Nakamura (Oku, Ohime, May 22, 1954)

How the son of a power plant maintenance man in a remote Japanese fishing village became a researcher in a small company that had a laboratory with two employees, and how he outran all major electronics companies with the invention of the bright blue LED light, after which he quickly credited 200 related inventions, including the Blu-ray laser, got into a fight with his old boss's son-in-law, and left for California because his wife and three daughters found that place the most attractive, and where he is now , after receiving 25 international awards, if only a modern Edison can be surprised by the Nobel Prize - for Chemistry or Physics, that is not clear.

When American science journalist Bob Johnstone visited Nichia, a small producer of phosphor for TV picture tubes, in the remote Japanese town of Anan in 1994, owner Nobuo Ogawa was not present.

He climbed a mountain of 2,750 meters in the heart of China, Johnstone was told. "3000 meters is my limit these days," said the 82-year-old boss when Johnstone made another appearance a few months later, "but anyway, mountaineering is where I get my best ideas."

Ogawa had a special man at home, one Shuji Nakamura, who announced to the world in November 1993 that he had developed the bright blue LED light.

Finally, Johnstone was able to interview the two together. "We basically have no idea what Shuji is doing in our lab here," Ogawa said. 'Here in Anan we only know about rice fields and ploughing.' Nakamura just giggled. 'In fact, when I go into the laboratory to see what exactly he is doing there, I am none the wiser...

and he hardly tells me anything.'

The old man and his young world star, not yet forty years old, laughed with laughter. “You have to let researchers do what they like to do,” Ogawa said. 'Otherwise they can't research, and if they need something, you have to buy it for them.

It was of course a big risk, but research is simply a synonym of risk.'

Book learning led to nothing, you had to learn to think for yourself, Ogawa thought, and Nakamura could think for himself, he was sure of that.

A series of electronics companies and universities had been chasing that bright blue LED light with their best minds for decades and here were two strange guys from a Japanese mini-company of 200 people, joking around, or so Johnstone thought.

How was this possible?

What did an electrical engineer do in a chemical company anyway? Ogawa himself didn't know either.

When Nakamura had applied for a job in 1979, he had told him that he had no job for him, that Nichia was not doing well, that the company could fail at any moment and that he should think again.

Finally, just to please Nakamura's university mentor, a good friend of his, he hired the young engineer and placed him in his two-person lab. Nichia made phosphor for cathode ray tubes and fluorescent lamps and that was the end of it.

There wasn't much to investigate. Most of the employees were farmers' sons who lived nearby, went home quickly for lunch and were naturally given time off when the rice had to be planted, weeded or harvested.

Nichia would benefit from expanding its products, the sales department thought, for example with LED light, light from a light-emitting diode, or a semiconductor. In those days, this meant the conventional bright red diode, which was developed in 1962 by the American Nick Holonyak.

Over the next thirty years, the colors were still there

Amber, yellow and yellow-green LED lights added.

American and Japanese researchers had done groundbreaking work, but the holy grail that the laboratories of universities and private companies worldwide were looking for was and remained bright blue, because it could ultimately also produce white light.

At the request of the vendors, Nakamura worked three times for three years on the production of semiconductor applications that were in high demand. Three times he reached the finish line at about the same time as competitors such as Sony and Panasonic.

Too late for little Nichia to gain a market position. Nakamura worked hard, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, on a shoestring budget; his salary was low and because he did not achieve commercial success, his status within the company remained downright poor even after eight years of struggling.

That bothered him. He could never have had his way. He had not been able to publish a single scientific article because the company forbade it.

He could not have applied for a single patent, because Nichia was afraid of it: you could not throw knowledge out on the street. What was left for him? Nothing. Just the hunt for the bright blue LED light. “Out of desperation,” Nakamura would later testify.

An LED (from light-emitting diode, light-emitting diode) is an electronic component, a diode that emits light when a current is passed through it in the forward direction. The Soviet Russian radio technician Oleg Vladimirovich Losev discovered the phenomenon in the mid-1920s.

His 1927 description went unnoticed. The breakthrough did not occur until 1962 with red LED light (for example in the upper brake light of cars). The color depends on the type of semiconductor material used.

For thirty years the bright blue color could not be generated and without blue white remained out of reach.

LED lamps are smaller, more robust and more durable than existing lamps and, above all, they require little maintenance. They hardly give off any heat. That is why they are ubiquitous in electronics, in displays and in fiber optic technology.

Remote controls for electronic equipment transmit their commands using infrared LEDs.
In 1988, Nakamura took the plunge and went straight to Nobuo Ogawa, the then 76-year-old founder and patriarch, to explain his dream.

Nakamura asked for the equivalent of three million euros, two percent of the company's annual turnover, to buy a new oven with which you could burn precisely defined crystals on a surface with metal vapors.

And an amount to study at the University of Florida how to operate such a high-tech oven. The enterprising Ogawa could not resist the temptation of the audacious plan and approved it. That approval was just as special as the plan.

Three months later, in March 1988, Nakamura boarded a plane to the States. Where did he come from?

Mangas and volleyball

Shuji Nakamura (left) and his great support Nobuo Ogawa, founder of Nichia, in 1995 sea side of Sadamisaki Peninsula, Ehime Prefecture. The area resembles Pearl Harbor so much that Japanese soldiers prepared here for their famous attack on the United States.

It is a remote spot on the desolate, mountainous Shikoku Island. The climate is mild. Ehime is known throughout Japan for its mandarin oranges, in many varieties and flavors. Nevertheless, Ehime is poor. In terms of income, it is fortieth on the list of 47 prefectures.

The peninsula is long and narrow. Until the 1960s, the roads were not wide enough to allow car or bus traffic. All connections were by ferry. Shuji's father worked as a maintenance man at a power plant and the family lived in a company building.

His father taught him to carve wooden toys, such as catapults or bamboo propellers. And he was completely in love with the manga comic Astro Boy, a science fiction story in which a scientist uses the robot boy Astro Boy against crime and injustice.
His childhood passion was volleyball. Although his secondary school teachers advised him to stop playing volleyball so as not to harm his studies, he continued.

Perhaps this explains his poor university entrance exam, which made him ineligible for an elite university.

So he ended up at the local university of Tukushima, a simple technical college that had been elevated to a university. Physics and mathematics appealed to him, but he studied to become an electrical engineer because, according to his teachers, that direction offered a better chance of finding a job.

It quickly became apparent that few subjects aroused his interest, but because his parents had difficulty paying for his studies and his mother started working part-time especially for him, he did not drop out.

In the third year, a subject suddenly appeared that particularly fascinated him: semiconductors, substances that conduct electricity poorly or only under certain circumstances. He became friends with the committed professor Osama Tada, and chose semiconductors as the theme for his master's thesis.

The small university had no money to purchase sophisticated equipment, so the students had to make do with items that could be found in 'the junk room' – a warehouse for old electrical equipment.

The would-be engineers had to be resourceful and roll up their sleeves themselves.

It was also unusual that Nakamura married and had a child while still a student. The marriage was even worth a notice in the local newspaper.

Large electronics companies in Japan traditionally only hire graduates who are single and can live in small flats on the company premises; the presence of a woman and child is excluded.

In his autobiography, Nakamura later also wrote that he did not want his children to grow up in cities with millions of people like Tokyo or Osaka. That is why he turned to his mentor in 1978 looking for work.

And Professor Osama Tada immediately thought of his old friend Ogama who ran a phosphorus company in the city of Anan.

Biographer Johnstone: 'The stereotypical Japanese salaryman is shy and speaks indistinctly, he is not used to being straight forward. He is naturally suspicious and reserved.

He is formal in his manner and certainly not at ease with foreigners; only among his peers in the company can he be truly relaxed.

He is extremely aware of the pecking order in the company and he knows “his place” all too well. (…) And if he has a sense of humor, the average Japanese salaryman will certainly not show it in public.'

Shuji Nakamura did not match this image in any respect.

American Science journalist Dennis Normile after a conversation with Nakamura: 'Never in my life have I had to laugh so terribly and persistently during an interview.' Nakamura was different, he was nakama hazure, not belonging to the group, an outsider.

That would become abundantly clear in the coming years

'Out of desperation' the other way

Shuji Nakamura had followed an unusual path as a researcher and now, ten years after arriving in Anan, he was allowed to leave for Florida. He was 34 and had never been abroad. He could read English, but could he make himself understood?

That was far from certain. In Florida it turned out that not only was he, as expected, much older than the other students, but everyone also had a doctorate. Because he had published nothing, the mysterious Japanese was no more than a technician, not a physicist or chemist.

Despite his ten years of experience with semiconductors, his fellow students hardly took him seriously. They saw him as a laboratory technician, a technical helper. 'Out of desperation' he again took a different direction than the big gang.

In the silent hope of also being able to obtain a doctorate through this quest.

Officially, he was in Florida learning to bake conventional red and infrared LEDs, but he kept his real intentions secret.

The university had two high-tech ovens, but it soon became apparent that they were always fully booked and that his professor, Ramu Ramaswamy, failed to reserve sufficient time for his students. The man had all the parts to build a new oven.

Nakamura realized that if he wanted to gain experience in Florida, he had to help assemble that new reactor. It took him eight of his precious months to construct the complex, sophisticated monster, the size of a cargo container with miles of pipes and connections.

He was a bulldog worker, Ramaswamy explained afterwards: 'One day I left the university at ten o'clock in the evening. When I got home I discovered that I had forgotten something. And then it turned out that he was still working at two in the morning.

When I arrived the next day around five or six in the morning, he was still there. “Shouldn't you be going to sleep,” I asked him? And he said, “I was in the middle of something and wanted to finish it first.”'

Back in Anan

By the time Nakamura returned from Florida in March 1989, Nobuo Ogawa (now 77) had handed over control of his company to his son-in-law Eiji Ogawa. (Sons-in-law in Japan often take the surname of their wife's family.) Old Ogawa, all commentators say, was a born entrepreneur and an easy-going, talkative man, you knew immediately what you had in him.

The young Ogawa was more of a classic Japanese manager, who played it safe and took no risks. Eiji Ogawa also had difficulty communicating. Nakamura: 'One day Eiji, the president, came into my lab and discovered that I was working on the blue LED despite his ban.

He turned pale, disappeared and sent me an emphatic written admonition. I threw away the paper and continued at my own peril for months.”

Eiji Ogawa saw research as 'wasted money'. Even after Nakamura developed the bright blue LED and gave Nichia a product that quickly made a fortune, an angry boss continued to bully his most prominent employee. He did not begrudge him success.

It was something personal.

Nakamura was now very familiar with the work of the American and Japanese LED pioneers and his experience was so broad, physically, chemically and technically, that no one in the world was better prepared for the development of bright blue light.

In those days you had two semiconductor combinations that had the color blue 'in them': zinc selinide and gallium nitride. Belief in the latter material was low because the required crystals showed a high error rate, namely ten billion per square centimeter.

It seemed impossible that you could produce bright light with that.
Nakamura, who had too often trodden paths under commercial pressure, deliberately chose gallium nitride.

Even today it is unclear how this metal, despite the error rate in crystallization, is so excellently suitable for creating bright blue LED light. Nakamura: 'No one knows. It is a magical material.' Nakamura made his seemingly foolish decision all on his own.

There was simply no one at Nichia who understood what he was doing. From 1991 onwards he started publishing scientific articles without the knowledge of his superiors. In the morning he repaired his reactor, in the afternoon he tested the changes with new experiments.

Also in his dreams

Nakamura worked from 7 to 7, seven days a week. He never took time off, only on New Year's Day. Every evening he drove home, had dinner with his family, took a bath and went to bed around eleven. “That relaxation helps me concentrate better,” he said.

He was the type of researcher who could easily run into a pole on the street. Nakamura: 'When I start something, I become obsessed with it. I always think about it, whether I'm awake or asleep. And I am very impatient. If I have an idea, I have to test it immediately.

And if I have ten, I test all ten. I have twenty, all twenty.'

Elsewhere it is stated in a biography: 'He thought about how to produce high-quality gallium nitride morning, noon and night, every waking moment, even in his dreams.

One night he was so deep in thought that he ran a red light while driving home and almost caused a terrible accident.'

The construction of its own LED production facility, the most sophisticated at the time, was the key to its success.

Other researchers had to call on experts from other disciplines, or engineers from the factory where the machines came from, for each adjustment, which led to a great loss of time. Nakamura constructed a unique example.

That reactor was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his enormous lead in the scientific world for years.

Also, based on all his practical skills – starting with the tinkering his father taught him, to working with the dumped electrical equipment in the university junkyard, to building a new reactor in Florida – he was able to quickly develop a completely new reactor.

It quickly became apparent that he could achieve unparalleled clarity with the offending gallium nitride, despite the impurities. Against Nichia's guidelines, he published an article about this for a Japanese scientific journal.

After repeated refusal, it finally appeared in the prestigious American magazine Applied Physics Letters in May 1991. Nakamura was now certain that he was the number one in the world as an 'LED burner', the bright blue LED light shimmered on the horizon.
He would maintain that pole position for nine years.

By the summer of 1991 he was able to produce a blue LED, still shining dimly, but lasting for a thousand hours. To increase the clarity, he made more complex layers and introduced the chemical element indium. From February to June 1992 he worked on the use of indium.

In September 1992 he increased the number of layers. Finally he had light that you could see in broad daylight. It was time for commercial production. On November 12, 1993 the time had come.

Nobody could believe it

On November 12, 1993, Nichia announced his discovery of the bright blue light at a press conference in Tokyo. No one could believe it, many thought Nakamura had cheated.

He came from a university that meant nothing, and worked in a phosphorus company that meant even less.

An American researcher: 'Never have I known that someone had such a huge advantage, and that the rest of the world was not even able to compete with him. It's a great demonstration of what a brilliant engineer is capable of.'

Nakamura: 'What I have achieved shows that anyone with some specific knowledge in a certain area, without big money, and without collaboration with universities and companies, can single-handedly achieve great success when entering a new area of research. if he can break free from conventional ideas and conventional knowledge.'
His enemies would say that during the rest of his Japanese years, from 1993 to 1999, he spent most of his time abroad at conferences. Nevertheless, during that period he also published 146 scientific articles, six books and ten separate chapters in other books.

Nakamura: 'Only the researchers who had followed my publications closely saw it coming. More than fifty firms called to find out if it was true.' In the years that followed, Nakamura managed to make the blue light increasingly brighter, including the green.

The white one dates from 1995. In April 1994 Nichia sold one million blue LED lights per month, in 1999 this was 30 million units. The company built a new six-story factory to keep up with production.

At every international conference, more people showed up to see Nakamura at work: every time he had something new. After all, he worked with a reactor that was unique in the world. Even if researchers knew how a novelty worked, it proved extremely difficult to copy Nakamura.

His biggest stunt in those years was the presentation of the blue laser diode, the Blu-ray, in Berlin in 1996, preferably using a pointer with… Blu-ray. In those days, the development of the blue laser diode seemed even more important than the LED light itself.

It was clear to the professional world that you could record much more data on a disc with the shorter wavelength of the blue laser: the Blu-ray was born.

Blu Ray

The Blu-ray disc is the successor to the DVD. The simplest DVD had a storage capacity of 4.7 gigabytes, or 120 minutes of image and sound. Due to the shorter wavelength of the blue laser, a Blu-ray disc has a capacity of approximately 25 gigabytes.

It is also possible to stack several layers that can store 75 gigabytes.

No wonder that more than a thousand researchers came to listen and especially watch the Japanese guest at a conference in Montpellier in 1999. LED expert Warren Weeks: 'In the 1990s he was the god of every conference we attended.

Everyone came for what we called the “Shuji Light Show” because he always dazzled the learned crowd with his new products.

He was clearly two to three years ahead of everyone in the room, including the best scientists who were now also able to generate bright blue LED light themselves.'

'The slave' rebels

Despite all the breakthroughs, successes and accolades, Nakamura was not promoted or raised at Nichia. Of the hundred patents he had taken out for his inventions, fifty turned out to be commercially useful.

Nichia's turnover and profits multiplied, the number of employees increased by leaps and bounds, but Nakamura earned no more than an average Japanese employee, a salaryman. At international conferences he met foreign researchers who had made a fortune with their work.

Some had become friends over the years. They couldn't understand how Nakamura allowed himself to be messed with and teasingly called him 'the slave'.

Old Nobuo Ogawa, his protector, the man who had employed him and generously funded his research, was confined to his sick bed at the age of 87 and almost blind. Nakamura had become an international star, a thorn in the side of successor Eiji Ogawa.

To push Nakamura aside, he used a classic Japanese business trick: He created a new, pseudo-prestigious department and made Nakamura its chief. But Nakamura had nothing to do. Japan has a term for this kind of job: mado-giwa-zoku, 'those who sit by the window'.

Staring out the window, without work, without subordinates, without any responsibility. They have been retired internally.

This quickly became known in the international scientific world. Ten American and two European universities tried to persuade Nakamura to leave in those days.

In consultation with his wife and three daughters, he finally chose UCSB, the University of California Santa Barbara, with a campus near the Pacific Ocean. He resigned on December 27, 1999.

Not wanting to sign a “non-compete agreement” – something UCSB lawyers had warned him about – Nichia President Eiji Ogawa canceled his pension compensation.

When Nakamura and his wife, who had always worked as a kindergarten teacher, compared what they had earned during those years, they each arrived at about the same amount.

Television crews from five Japanese channels were at Osaka airport several days later to film his departure. That departure was so unusual: a Japanese employee, certainly not a top employee, never leaves his company, and certainly not for a foreign employer.

Whoever does it anyway is the disloyal, treacherous samurai who abandons his master.

On January 10, 2000, the UCSB announced in a press release: 'The inventor of the blue, green and white LED light and the blue laser has left his Japanese company for an American university.' For the down-to-earth Americans, the Japanese company had chased away its goose that laid the golden eggs.

150 euros becomes 6 million

In December 2000, Nichia filed a lawsuit against his former employee for allegedly betraying trade secrets to American competitor Cree. However, the rebellious Nakamura still had a bone to pick with his employer.

He in turn filed a lawsuit in August 2001 because he had received a bonus of no more than 150 euros for his invention of the bright blue LED light from Nichia. He asked for a share of the profits.

In an initial ruling, the judge proposed a colossal amount of the equivalent of $190 million.

In Nakamura's wake, researchers from the companies Hitachi (Seiji Yonezawa, inventor of the optical disc reader), Toshiba (Fujio Masuoka, inventor of the Flash memory) and Ajinomoto (Masoyoshi Naruse, inventor of aspartame) also filed a lawsuit against their employer On.

A shock wave went through Japan. The national TV channel NHK immediately canceled the broadcast of an hour and a half portrait of Nakamura. The trial captivated Japan for three years, so that the international media also followed the spectacle.

Tens of thousands of Japanese researchers found themselves in the same situation as Shuji Nakamura a few years earlier. And Nakamura continuously provided sharp commentary from the US on the opinion pages of the national newspapers.

He wrote that Japan was a communist country in which kindergarten teachers and prominent researchers earned equally. He should know.

He criticized the education system – 'comparable only to that of North Korea' – that forces everyone to think the same, a system that values learning by rote over thinking for yourself. And that is too focused on elite universities.

He had also experienced that firsthand.

Nakamura: 'I was a typical Japanese office clerk. That's in our genes.

At school we are already taught the blind loyalty of the samurai to his lord and master.' And: 'Everyone wants to change our system, just see how public opinion appreciates me – only the government bureaucracy prevents any change.

China is changing very quickly, Korea is changing, but Japan wouldn't be Japan if it changed.' "Japan is a good country for people without ambition," he criticized his homeland, "An engineer who wants to become rich in Japan has to become a baseball player or a TV entertainer." And: 'It is more true than ever in Japan: if a nail sticks out, it must be hammered in again.'

This is how Nakamura became a media star. The fashion chain Uniqlo managed to get him as a model and featured him in a TV commercial in fashionable suits, against a blue background of course.

His American colleague Jim Speck says: 'When I walked through the corridors of a station in Tokyo with him in those years, all kinds of people stopped us: first there was a group of adult women and then a group of older salarymen who met him. wish you much success. “Only older people recognize me,” Nakamura said at the time.

Until a little later two young girls approached him and asked him for a photo.'

Nichia insisted that you can't pay the inventor full price for a risk that the company takes and not himself. It had Nakamura spied on and published a history of the LED light in which it minimized Nakamura's role.

It really put all its efforts into battle. Finally, at the beginning of 2005, both parties reached an agreement of 6 million euros. An amount that for Nakamura largely disappeared to the tax authorities and lawyers.

Millennium Prize

Professor Nakamura and his students spent two years building yet another high-tech oven in California. The Americans are amazed that Nakamura has no hobby at all. Relaxation zero, it's called.

And if he has asked a student to conduct an experiment, he does not appreciate that the person concerned wants to go surfing for a while. "Don't be surprised if Shuji calls you on Sunday at 6 o'clock in the afternoon with an idea to test out," they say.

He is not considered a great theorist; doing research is more to his liking. He dreams of setting up a company with a number of his students based on the results of their joint research. That's his American dream.

Nakamura: 'With the transition from the vacuum tube to the transistor, electronics has already been behind the semiconductor revolution for fifty years. She still has to get started in lighting.'

In 2006, Nakamura received the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize of one million euros. A YouTube video clearly shows how this en petit committee is announced to the Japanese researcher; how he falls completely out of the blue and barely runs out of words.

The two most important advantages of LED light, he said on that occasion, are the general energy savings and the provision of almost free light to people in the developing world. During the day you can collect light via solar cells and generate it again in the evening with LED lights.

At the awards ceremony in Helsinki, as shown in another video, he points with both hands how everyone was going in the same direction, and he simply went in a different direction. It was that simple.

In California this is called: 'Don't follow the pack!' An unusual statement, especially for a Japanese person. A variation on his words: 'I could easily win the race, I was almost alone in the race.'

What is LED light and how do you make it?

An LED, like a computer chip, is made of semiconductor material. Silicon is the best-known example of this. In the LED, two different types of semiconductors are brought into contact with each other. One of them is an n-type semiconductor, which has an excess of electrons.

The other, a p-type semiconductor, has a shortage of electrons. The places where electrons are missing in the p-type semiconductor are called holes.

When an electric current is passed through the LED, electrons are chased across the barrier from one side, and when they 'fall' into the holes on the other side, they emit light.
To produce a chip the size of one grain of sand, you need an oven the size of a cargo container.

Cost one million dollars. It contains kilometers of stainless steel pipes. At temperatures up to 1200 degrees, layers of single atoms – pure nanotechnology – are applied to the base material.

Sometimes as many as ten layers to increase the strength of the light, like a 'club sandwich'. Operating such an oven is a high art. Expert Herb Maruska: 'Many people can play the violin, but few are virtuoso. This is also the case when baking LEDs.'
The chip itself is almost invisible to the naked eye. When it shines it is very bright, when it does not light it is invisible. Most LED chips are smaller than a millimeter square and are about the size of a grain of sand.

Roland Haitz's law

Just like computer technology with Moore's law, LED technology has a law that predicts the course of events in the future. Gordon Moore predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every twelve months.

In 1970 he adjusted this to 'every two years'. That law remains in effect to this day.
Roland Haitz's law (Haitz's Law) states that the strength of LED light (lumens) increases twenty times every ten years, while at the same time the price decreases ten times. Dr.

Haitz formulated his law in 1999, he was research director at Hewlett-Packard, later Agilent Technologies, until his retirement.