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Nick Holonyak, Jr. is considered the father of the visible light-emitting diode (LED). His invention of the visible (red) LED in 1962 at General Electric in Syracuse, NY, initiated the broad use of III-V semiconductor alloy technology, enriching lives everywhere. The long-life red LED was initially used for panel indicators, traffic lights, and automobile tail lights. As other colors developed, applications broadened for low-power illumination and decorative applications. LEDs produce the greatest amount of light for the energy used and have the longest lifetime of any lighting sources available. The energy savings are of benefit worldwide.
A key factor in the invention of the visible LED was the development of III-V semiconductor alloys such as gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP), which, with adjustment of alloy composition, can “tune” semiconductor properties to a useful range. Holonyak’s work led to the commercial introduction of red GaAsP LEDs and eventually to the concept of an “ultimate lamp.”
In 1977 he developed the first quantum well (QW) semiconductor laser at the University of Illinois, and in 1978 he demonstrated the first room temperature continuous wave operation of a QW diode laser (with Russ Dupuis). Today, every LED and semiconductor laser incorporates Holonyak’s work on III-V alloy semiconductors and quantum wells; the alloys are the basis for other LED colors and the QW diode laser commonly used for the read/write function on CDs and DVDs.
He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1973) and National Academy of Sciences (1984), fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science (1984), foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1999), and inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2008). He has received the IEEE Edison Medal (1989) and Medal of Honor (2003) as well as the US National Medal of Science (1990) and National Medal of Technology (2002), the Japan Prize (1995), the Global Energy International Prize (Russia, 2003) and the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2005).
Holonyak has taught at the University of Illinois since 1963; as professor of electrical and computer engineering he still conducts research and has mentored over 60 graduate students, who have gone on to develop many useful semiconductor devices themselves. His work has led to over 585 papers and 59 patents.
He received his BS (1950), MS (1951), and PhD (1954) in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. He was the first graduate student of John Bardeen, who later received two Nobel Prizes in Physics.