Nick Holonyak Jr., who made an LED breakthrough, dies at 93

Nick Holonyak Jr., whose development in 1962 was the first practical light-emitting diode or LED in the visible spectrum, proved to be a breakthrough that has myriad practical applications today, including light bulbs, cell phones, televisions, and microscopic surgical devices that can save lives , died September 18 in Urbana, Illinois. He was 93 years old.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he researched and taught for 50 years and became a professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics, announced the death but did not provide a cause of death.

The physics behind the LED discovery had been known since at least 1907, when HJ Round, an English wireless expert working as an engineer for the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Co. of New Jersey, discovered electroluminescence in a solid-state diode – the light that was used for that not visible to the human eye, only via instruments.

dr Holonyak was working at General Electric’s Advanced Semiconductor Laboratory in Syracuse, NY, when a fellow chemist was working on the realization of a semiconductor laser that used invisible infrared light. Out of competitive spirit, Dr. Holonyak that he thought, “If they can make a laser, I can make a better laser than anyone else because I made this alloy, which is ‘red’ – visible.” And I’ll be able to see what’s going on. And they’re stuck in infrared.”

as dr Holonyak developed a light-emitting diode — a semiconductor light source that emits light when an electric current is passed through it — he literally showed the world in a whole new light. It glowed intensely red, thanks to the gallium arsenide phosphide crystals he used in the diode.

“It’s good that I was an engineer and not a chemist,” he said in a 2012 GE interview. “When I wanted to show them my LED, all the chemists at GE said, ‘You can’t. If you were a chemist you would know that wouldn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well, I just did it and lo and behold, it works!’ ”

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Colleagues called it “The Magic One”.

However, it still took several decades and contributions from multiple researchers before the technology became more reliable for everyday commercial use, not only in homes and businesses, but also by municipalities to illuminate streets and signs.

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Experts say LEDs use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent and halogen light sources. His work is now used in airport runway lights, airplane cabins and miners’ helmet lamps, a subject close to his heart as the son of an immigrant Ukrainian miner.

More recently, Dr. Holonyak on developing a technique for diffraction of light in gallium arsenide chips, a development that allows computer chips to transmit information through light instead of electricity. Along with his Illinois colleague Milton Cheng, he also helped develop the transistor laser, which uses light and electrical outputs that could improve next-generation high-speed communications technologies.

It is estimated that in the United States alone, LEDs can save $30 billion annually in energy costs, reduce the need for conventional coal and gas-fired power plants, and cut CO2 emissions by tens of tons per year. And unlike neon products, they contain no mercury, making them more environmentally friendly.

“Nick Holonyak is a national treasure,” said Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting & Electrical Institute in Nela Park in East Cleveland, in a GE report. “His curiosity and drive to explore and invent have inspired thousands of students and countless innovations. It is breathtaking to contemplate the widespread and profound impact of ‘The Magic One’ brought to life by Nick Holonyak 50 years ago.”

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Nikola Holonyak was born on November 3, 1928 in Zeigler, Illinois and grew up in Glen Carbon, Illinois. His father had emigrated from a poverty-stricken coal-mining region in the Ukrainian Carpathians almost two decades earlier.

“He arrived in Baltimore on a boat with two dollars in his pocket,” said Dr. Holonyak told the Big Ten TV news network in 2011, “and he made his way to Pennsylvania because he knew there were miners there. Everything he knew [in English] was ‘Mr. Boss, give me a job.’ Miners were paid 38 cents per tonne of coal mined. Most of the men in town were miners, so I understand broken Slavic almost perfectly.”

His father survived the 1914 mine explosion in Royalton, Illinois that killed 52 miners as he crawled to safety through an air shaft, and later told his son not to work in the mines. The younger Holonyak first worked on the Illinois Central Railroad as a “gandy dancer” – laying down railroad ties ten hours a day, six days a week for 65 cents an hour – before saying to himself, “The hell with that.”

He was the first in his family to pursue higher education, earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees (the last in 1954) from the University of Illinois. He then worked for Bell Labs, the Army Signal Corps, and General Electric before joining the faculty at the University of Illinois in 1963 and being won back by his mentor, John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Laureate in Physics. (In Illinois, Dr. Holonyak held the Bardeen Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics.)

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In 1955 he married the former Katherine “Kay” Jerger. She is his sole immediate survivor.

President George HW Bush awarded Dr. Holonyak received the 1990 National Medal of Science for “his contributions as one of the nation’s most prolific inventors in the field of semiconductor materials and devices.” President George W. Bush later awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2002, and Queen Elizabeth of England presented him with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in 2021.

He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America, among others. dr Holonyak also became known to his students for his physical fitness, challenging them to a number of push-ups or how far they could walk around the university gym on their hands. He rarely lost.

“Nick was known not only for his discipline and hard work, but also for his willingness to speak and engage with colleagues and students and share stories from his past,” wrote Rashid Bashir, dean of the university’s Grainger College of Engineering of Illinois, in an email. “He was provided with a nice independent office but preferred to be in the lab close to students and where the research was happening. He regularly trained at Kenny’s gym on UIUC’s campus and was known for challenging others to run, handstand, etc. He was committed to making the world a better place through learning, teaching and research.”

On the 2011 Big Ten television show, Don Scifres, an Illinois student studying with Dr. Holonyak studied and received his doctorate in 1972: “He said life is about making the world a better place and people who don’t have a goal, I don’t know what they live for.”

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