Nick Holonyak Jr., pioneer of LED lighting, awarded Queen Elizabeth Prize

2/2/2021 9:01:14 AM Liz Ahlberg Touchstone, News Bureau

Nick Holonyak Jr., a renowned innovator of illumination, has been awarded the 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering “for the creation and development of LED lighting, which forms the basis of all solid-state lighting technology.” Holonyak (pronounced huh-LON-yak) is credited with the development of the first practical visible-spectrum LED, now commonly used in light bulbs, device displays and lasers worldwide.

Nick Holonyak, Jr.: Photo by Brian L. Stauffer
Nick Holonyak, Jr. receiving the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

The John Bardeen Endowed Chair Emeritus in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Holonyak shares the prize – which includes a monetary award of 1 million pounds and a 3D-printed trophy – with his former students and Illinois alumni M. George Craford and Russel Dupuis, along with blue LED pioneers Isamu Akasaki and Shuji Nakamura.

Holonyak was born Nov. 3, 1928, in Zeigler, Illinois. The son of an immigrant coal miner, he was first in his family to pursue higher education. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Illinois, where he was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel laureate John Bardeen. He worked for Bell Labs, the U.S. Army Signal Corps and General Electric Co. before joining the faculty at the U. of I. in 1963.

Working at General Electric on Oct. 9, 1962, Holonyak demonstrated the first visible-light-emitting diode. While infrared LEDs previously had been made of the material gallium arsenide, Holonyak created crystals of gallium arsenide phosphide – the first time the three elements had crystalized together – to make an LED that would emit a visible red light.

“It’s a good thing I was an engineer and not a chemist. When I went to show them my LED, all the chemists at GE said, ‘You can’t do that. If you were a chemist, you’d know that wouldn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well, I just did it, and see, it works!’” Holonyak said.

At Illinois, Holonyak continued to innovate. In 1977, he and his students demonstrated the first quantum-well laser, now used in fiber optics, CD and DVD players, and medical diagnostic devices. In 2004, he developed the transistor laser – a transistor with both light and electric outputs that could enable next-generation high-speed communications technologies – with fellow Illinois professor Milton Feng.

In addition to his research, Holonyak is known for his excellence in mentorship and dedication to his students. Fellow award winners Craford and Dupuis both credit their time with him as inspiration for their own careers. They refined LED technology, laying the path for high-quality, commercial LEDs available today.

“In those early days, when it was long days and nights hand-building reactors, Nick Holonyak mentored us. He really drew us in and inspired us to be part of the adventure that is engineering,” Dupuis said.

The QEPrize winners will formally be honored at a ceremony later this year in the United Kingdom.

Holonyak has received numerous awards for his innovations, including the National Academy of Engineering’s Draper Prize (2015), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004), the Global Energy Prize from Russia (2003), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor (2003), the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2002), the Japan Prize (1995) and the U.S. National Medal of Science (1990).