The 2014 Noble Prize in Physics has been won by the three scientists responsible for inventing blue light-emitting diodes, commonly known as LEDs. The Nobel Prize statement emphasised that the invention has enabled bright, energy-saving, environmentally friendly white light sources. It also noted that this particular award is in the spirit of the prize because it rewards an invention of the greatest benefit to humankind.
The three professors, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, invented the first blue LEDs back in the early 1990s. Red and green LEDs had existed before that, but the invention of blue LEDs stood as a long-held challenge for scientists at the time. Blue was needed to be able to mix with the other colours to produce the white light needed to illuminate our world adequately. The invention has formed the basis of a whole new generation of light bulbs and products now hitting the mainstream around the world.
LEDs can be found in the lights and screens of smartphones and other electronic devices, in household and office LED light bulbs, and even in new car lights. LEDs are well on the way to replacing old, inefficient incandescent and fluorescent bulbs everywhere.
As an example of the invention’s significant contribution to humanity, it is estimated that around 20% of the world’s electricity is used for lighting. Potentially, this could drop to about 4% if LEDs replace existing lighting. As Michael Graham Richard has pointed out, that represents the equivalent of hundreds of large power plants.
However, no doubt humanity’s overall hunger for electricity will only grow, at the same time as fossil fuel-based electricity generation needs to be phased out because of climate change, so inventions like this are very important. As the Noble Prize statement also pointed out, “The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power.”
Due to its massive positive impact on our existence in the world, this is a well-deserved award if ever we saw one.