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BY RUSSELL D. DUPUIS
NICK HOLONYAK JR. was born November 3, 1928, and grew up in the impoverished southern Illinois coal mining town of Zeigler during the Great Depression. His father, Nick Holonyak Sr., was a Carpatho-Rusyn coal miner ...
NICK HOLONYAK JR. was born November 3, 1928, and grew up in the impoverished southern Illinois coal mining town of Zeigler during the Great Depression. His father, Nick Holonyak Sr., was a Carpatho-Rusyn coal miner who had emigrated from a region in the Carpathian Mountains that is now in Ukraine; he came to the United States as a young man with two dollars in his pocket. His mother, Anna Rosoha, was an orphan from the same region who had also immigrated to the area’s coalfields.
Two childhood stories presaged the man Nick Jr. would become. When he was five years old and asked his father for a toy, Nick Sr. instead gave him a pocketknife and showed him how to whittle so he could make his own slingshot, bow and arrow, or whistle. A few years later, while in grade school, Nick would often be sent by his mother to get milk from a local farmer across town. Along the way he’d join in a game of marbles with other children. By his own account later in life, he was skilled at this and he played to win—always beating his peers and walking away with all the marbles.
Holonyak drew on this creativity, determination, competitiveness, and self-reliance throughout his life as he went on to become one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century. At the time of his death on September 18, 2022, at the age of 93, he was the John Bardeen Chair Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and often described as the “father of the LED and semiconductor visible laser diode.”
Holonyak was the first person in his family to attend any type of formal schooling. In his high school summers during World War II, he worked on the Illinois Central Railroad laying and maintaining track in order to earn money for college. After graduating from high school in 1946, he attended a University of Illinois branch campus for two years and then moved to the main campus at Urbana as a junior. He received his BS (1950), MS (1951), and PhD (1954) degrees in electrical engineering.
He was a Texas Instruments Fellow during his PhD program and, as the first graduate student of John Bardeen (NAE 1972, NAS 1954), helped set up germanium semiconductor research at UIUC. After receiving his PhD he was hired as a member of the technical staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey (1954–55), where he helped demonstrate the feasibility of diffused-impurity silicon devices, including transistors, oxide-masked transistors, p-n-p-n switches, and silicon-controlled rectifiers (SCRs).
While at Bell Labs, he voluntarily declined to get a deferment from military service and was drafted into the US Army in 1955, serving with the Signal Corps (1955–57) at Fort Monmouth, NJ, and later at Isogo-ku, Yokohama, Japan. In his spare time while in Japan, he often had technical interactions with the leading Japanese researchers in the semiconductor field who were eager to learn about silicon (Si) semiconductor technology.
After his discharge from the US Army in 1957, he returned to the States and joined the Advanced Semiconductor Laboratory of the General Electric Company in Syracuse, New York, where he made contributions in the areas of Si power and signal p-n-p-n devices (including invention of the shorted-emitter and symmetrical SCR and thyristor switches–bilateral triode thyristors [TRIACs], among others).
In 1960–63 he also worked on halide transport and epitaxial growth of III-V compounds and alloys, studying tunnel diodes, phonon-assisted tunneling (the initial observation of inelastic tunneling and the beginning of tunneling spectroscopy), double injection and deep-impurity-level effects, and p-n junction luminescence, demonstrating the first ternary alloy GaAs1−xPx red-light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In October 1962 he demonstrated the first III-V alloy semiconductor diode lasers emitting in the visible spectrum.
His work on GaAsP and his initial construction in 1960 of a p-n junction in the ternary alloy crystal system, and demonstration of a visible-spectrum laser diode in 1962, led to the commercial introduction of red-light-emitting GaAsP diodes. In a 1963 interview with Reader’s Digest Magazine, he correctly predicted that the diode laser would ultimately become “a practical light source.”
His invention of the first practical visible LED also marks the beginning of the use of III-V alloys in semiconductor devices, including the demonstration of the first III-V hetero-junctions.
In 1963, at Bardeen’s invitation and with his encouragement, Holonyak returned to UIUC as a full professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics. He was also appointed a member of the University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study.
At UIUC he and his students worked primarily on III-V semiconductors, III-V alloy crystal growth, and demonstration of stimulated emission and laser operation in III-V semiconductor heterojunctions. In 1970 he and his students were the first to make quaternary III-V semiconductor materials and devices including LEDs and lasers. Holonyak’s innovations of III-V ternary and quaternary compound semiconductors underpin all of the advanced LEDs, laser diodes, avalanche photodiodes, high-speed electronics, and other products that use layers of these III-V compounds.
His research since 1976 was mainly concerned with exploiting III-V alloys for application to quantum-well (QW) light emitters and lasers, impurity-induced layer disordering, III-V native oxide formation, and the light-emitting transistor, all of which underpin many applications in integrated optoelectronic devices. In 1977 he and his students were the first to construct QW laser diodes. These diodes were fabricated in the InP-InGaAsP system and contained multiple quantum wells ~50 nm thick grown by liquid-phase epitaxy (LPE)—a feat thought to be impossible for LPE technology.
In collaboration with others, in 1978 Holonyak’s team was also the first to achieve continuous wave room-temperature (300 K) laser operation of QW heterostructures and super-lattices, and later (1982) strained-layer QW heterostructure laser diodes. This work is the source of the term “quantum-well laser,” widely used to describe these now ubiquitous devices. In 1981 he also invented a process called “impurity-induced layer disordering” that created controlled chemical intermixing of III-V semiconductor thin layers to locally control the energy gap and index of refraction.
In 1990 he and his students made another important innovation, a process to produce stable native oxides on (and buried in) Al-bearing III-V compounds, and demonstrated their use in optoelectronic devices such as LEDs and lasers. And in 2004, working with Prof. Milton Feng at UIUC, he introduced the light-emitting three-port laser operation of hetero-junction bipolar transistors (including QW HBTs), known as “light-emitting transistors.”
He coauthored the books Semiconductor Controlled Rectifiers (Prentice-Hall, 1964) and Physical Properties of Semiconductors (Prentice-Hall, 1989), was the editor of the Prentice-Hall series Solid State Physical Electronics, and served on the editorial boards of the Proceedings of the IEEE (1966–74), Solid-State Electronics (1970–91), and Journal of Applied Physics and Applied Physics Letters (1978–80). He published over 600 technical papers in refereed journals and held more than 60 US and foreign patents. He also served on the National Academies’ National Materials and Manufacturing Board (1981–83), Advisory Committee on USSR and Eastern Europe (1973–76), and Committee on Materials and Processes for Electron Devices (1970–72), among others.
Holonyak’s work was well recognized with many national and international honors. He was selected for a General Electric Cordiner Award (1962) and, for his contributions to the field of visible-spectrum LEDs and diode lasers, the IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Award (1973), John Scott Medal (1975, City of Philadelphia), GaAs Symposium Award with Welker Medal (1976), IEEE Jack A. Morton Award (1981), Electrochemical Society Solid State Science and Technology Award (1983), Sigma Xi Monie A. Ferst Award (1988), and IEEE Edison Medal (1989), He also received the Charles Hard Townes Award of the Optical Society of America (OSA; 1992), National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1993), American Electronics Association 50th Anniversary Award “Inventing America’s Future” (1993), American Society for Engineering Education Centennial Medallion (1993), Vladimir Karapetoff Eminent Members’ Award of Eta Kappa Nu (1994), Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society FMD John Bardeen Award (1995), IEEE Third Millennium Medal (2000), OSA Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize (2001), IEEE Medal of Honor (2003), Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004), and Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute (2017).
He received the 1990 US National Medal of Science from President George H.W. Bush and the 2002 US National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush. In 1995 he received the Japan Prize from Emperor Akihito, and in 2003 he was honored with one of the first Global Energy International Prizes from President Valdimir Putin. He was a co-recipient of the NAE’s Charles Stark Draper Prize (2015) and the Queen Elizabeth II Prize in Engineering (2021), given by Prince Charles, the Duke of Wales.
Besides being an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering (1973), Holonyak was a member of the NAS (1984), honorary member of the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute (St. Petersburg, Russia) (1992), foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1999), and eminent member of Eta Kappa Nu (1998), as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1984), IEEE (life fellow, 1994), American Physical Society, OSA (honorary member, 2015), and American Association for the Advancement of Science (2003). He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2008), Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame (now the Grainger Engineering Hall of Fame; 2010), and Engineering and Science Hall of Fame (2011). The IEEE established the Nick Holonyak Jr. Medal for Semiconductor Optoelectronic Technologies, to be awarded for the first time in 2024.
He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Northwestern University (1992) and an honorary doctor of engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame (1994). In 1993 he was appointed the first holder of UIUC’s John Bardeen Chair Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and of Physics, a chair sponsored by the Sony Corporation.
In 2013 Holonyak retired from UIUC after 50 years. As an emeritus professor of ECE he continued to collaborate with UIUC research colleagues until his death. During his career, he mentored 60 PhD ECE and physics graduate students, many of whom have gone on to make important contributions to the field of semiconductors.
Holonyak married Katherine (Kay) Rose Jerger on October 8, 1955. She was a constant supporter and devoted companion to Nick—he said many times that his work was possible only because of her dedication and contributions. Kay survives him. They had no children.