Isamu Akasaki, Nobel Prize winning co-Inventor of the Blue LED dies
April 2, 2021 9:53 PM   Subscribe

The co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the world's first efficient blue light-emitting diode, has died aged 92. From the article: "In 2014, Isamu Akasaki shared the Nobel Prize with physicist Hiroshi Amano, a professor at the University of Nagoya, and Japan-born American Shuji Nakamura, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara." Akasaki, when he was a professor at Nagoya University, worked with Amano to produce gallium nitride crystals, and succeeded in 1989 in creating the world’s first blue LED. Blue LEDs have since radically transformed the displays we use everyday in laptops, cell phones and most other lighting and backlit devices.

However, controversy remains over the award of the Nobel prize in 2014, with some pundits saying Boston Universities Theodore Moustakas at least deserved joint credit if not the outright recognition for his patents filed around the same time.

While Moustakas was publishing his research findings, he was racing the Japanese team to file patents to protect their technologies. Despite the controversy and competition, they teams remain cordial colleagues, and Nakamura even gave a keynote speech about the blue LED technology at 2016 symposium honoring Moustakas.

Even with the fraught push and pull for academic recognition, BU and Moustakas have not let the controversy stop them from pursuing highly lucrative patent infringement cases.
posted by bolix (31 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Just to underscore the importance of the blue LED, every white LED is really a blue LED with a dot of phosphorescent yellow paint over it.
posted by ryanrs at 10:01 PM on April 2 [20 favorites]

Forgot to mention the pending 2015 case may have influenced the 2014 Nobel selection committee.

I also misspelled fraught. Grr.

Full-disclosure: I was one of the jurists for the 2015 case.
posted by bolix at 10:09 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]

I know this is an important development which has improved the world in many ways, but I feel like sarcastically thanking Dr. Akasaki for the pain in my eyes every time a power adapter or phone charger has a blinding blue LED to show that it's plugged in, rather than a red one.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:49 PM on April 2 [11 favorites]

Mod note: fixed "fraught" typo.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:50 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Controversy or not, the spread of LED lighting has been a massive leap in efficiency, not to mention safety (just from the lack of the heat incandescent bulbs everywhere cause).
posted by wanderingmind at 11:03 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]

Full-disclosure: I was one of the jurists for the 2015 case.

That's really interesting, and forgive my total ignorance of American law, but how does that even work? I can imagine a lawyer trying to convince a group of people whether murder or robbery was committed (or not), but patent infringement by international corporations? Is this something a random jury of 10 people can wrap their heads around?
posted by Alex404 at 11:26 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

Blue LED light is directly toxic to your retinas. It’s been known for a long time that human lenses get yellower with age, which tends to filter out blue light, and that the yellowing is greater the more sunlight a person is exposed to, which has led to interesting paradoxes such as British people seeing blue better with their left eyes and Americans seeing blue better with their right eyes because British and American right and left eyes, respectively, are exposed to more light as they drive.

But the findings of toxicity of blue light imply that this yellowing has a protective effect, and it will be interesting to find out what happens to all of us going forward.

I’ve been hoping that the new purplish LEDs, with an emissions peak of ~405 nm, would lead us out of the valley of circadian rhythm resetting and increasing retinal toxicity of artificial lighting the era of blue LEDs have pushed us into, but according to the Nature article I link above, the purple LEDs are more toxic to the retina than blue LEDs.
posted by jamjam at 11:44 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

I'm glad he made this breakthrough, since it allowed for white LEDs, and thus LED light bulbs. But boy, someday people are going to look back at the early 21st century with bafflement and disgust at how crazy we went with the blue LEDs... especially given what we know about what blue light does to circadian rhythms.

Just the other day I watched a YouTube video about Amtrak's new sleeper train cars... and was horrified to see that the roomettes are equipped with blue LED "night lights". Good luck getting any sleep with one of those on.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:53 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

The average white LED still has a very high peak in the blue region of the spectrum, Artifice_Eternity, but among those images, there’s a spectrum labeled ‘oslo aquaponics' with a very low blue peak, and I’ll have to look into that.
posted by jamjam at 12:07 AM on April 3

Nobel Shocker: RCA Had the First Blue LED in 1972
“All three of these gentlemen deserve their prize, but there is a prehistory to the LED.” In fact, almost two decades before the Japanese scientists had finished the work that would lead to their Nobel Prize, a young twenty-something materials researcher at RCA named Herbert Paul Maruska had already turned on an LED that glowed blue.
posted by achrise at 6:32 AM on April 3

Yeah, the story about blue LEDs is better understood as 'LEDs as a viable light source'. LEDs in the 90s were, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. The fact that we can have LED-driven lights, reproduce all sorts of colours, have increasingly efficient screens, is down to this research.

We did not need blue LEDs on everything in the 2000s but it was a trendy way to go 'ooh it's new' and I'm hoping eventually we move on from it.
posted by Merus at 7:10 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]

The RCA/Maruska blue LED story is neat, but the story is really about efficient and bright blue LEDs, which the RCA one wasn't. RCA was a mess at the time Maruska worked there.
posted by scruss at 8:27 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

forgive my total ignorance of American law, but how does that even work

They set aside time to bootstrap and prep us on the particularities of the scientific principles and patent law that were going to be deliberated, including presentation of RCA as prior art defense, Japanese competition etc. Getting both counsels to agree on that prepwork explained some of why the case took so long to get to court and that lengthy runway perhaps perpetuated the shadow on Moustakas though the Nobel prize selection.

The jury selection itself was an exercise in the 2 counsels trying different tactics to influence the background and composition of the jury. Organically, those members of the jury that were biased towards the science or the law, self-selected when we were deliberating and were leaned on as interpreters after the defense and prosecution rested. When deliberating, we had time to raise questions and clarifications.

In the closing arguments, it was suggested that the defendants were besmirching Moustakas and using the Nobel Prize as a tactic to force BU to the negotiating table, alternately it was suggested that Moustakas and BU were greedy and unethical in seeking to profit from discoveries that preexisted and they had no right to claim. The Judge advised that we could consider the reputational impact if we decided in favor of Moustakas (which we did).

If I recall, I believe Moustakas donated his share of the fine to BU which would imply that he certainly viewed this as more than a mercenary exercise. I can still hear him pronounce "Epitaxy" in a Greek accent in my mind, based on what was presented in that month in 2015, he's a badass.

Edit: I capitalized Jury in the original and corrected to jury
posted by bolix at 9:13 AM on April 3 [7 favorites]

Because of this invention and the advent of lithium-ion batteries I now have pocket-sized flashlights and bike lights that are brighter than some car headlamps yet can be throttled down to 10-50 lumens and run for weeks if not months, and have price points that are often far less than what a decent incandescent flashlight used to cost.

Getting the same kind of lighting on a bike used to take huge battery packs and exotic, expensive bulbs like xenon or HID systems.

Even better, since white LEDs are solid state, they're basically indestructible and vibration and shock proof, which means they don't break the filament on incandescent bulbs if you drop them or subject them to vibration. I remember having to constantly buy flashlight bulbs for lights like a Maglite Solitaire.

Blowing out bulbs on older flashlights like this used to be a big huge deal and very common occurrence, which is why basically every Maglite flashlight has a spare bulb holder in the tailcap and battery contact spring.

Interesting personal flashlight historical note: many years ago ryanrs was there at Fry's when I bought my first serious-ish white LED flashlight, one of the earliest Inova white LED models that had like 6 regular standard sized 5mm domed plastic LEDs in a "white" tint that was still so blue it had ultraviolet casts in the beam.

I remember he said something like "Are you sure you want that? Why?" and I said something like "Oh, I'm sure. I've been waiting for one of these for years."

And then later that day or week he asked if I had that flashlight on me when we were inspecting some problem on his car.

I had that light for many years before the silly tail cap switch wore out, long before the actual LEDs burned out. It definitely paid for itself in incandescent replacement bulbs.

Today I have keychain flashlights smaller than my pinky finger that can put out 600+ lumens of warm high CRI light and will light up an area the size of a football field. A Maglight Solitaire can barely light up the inside a backpack and today still costs about the same as that modern LED light.

These modern LED lights are pretty much an essential every day tool in my life today. I use them on my ebike for high speed off road night rides. I use them at work in a restaurant and bar, doing tech work and more. I live in the countryside now, and I can't imagine walking out into a dark forest at night without one.

One of my favorite flashlight nerd tricks is showing off my bike lights when friends ask if I'm sure I'm safe riding my bike home at night and turning my helmet and bike lights on full turbo and waiting for the invariably reliable gasp of "HOLY SHIT!!!" when I show them that I probably have brighter and better headlights than their car.

Which is my second favorite flashlight nerd trick - holding one out the window when I'm riding as a passenger in a car going down a country road while watching for deer and totally obliterating their car's high beams with crystal clear high CRI lighting.

And in the high tech flashlight world today my lights aren't even that bright. There's pocket flashlights out there that can pump out over 4000 lumens and light things on fire, and they're not even that expensive.

Yeah, I can turn about 500-1000 feet of pitch black forested trail into daylight. I think I'll be ok as far as being seen or seeing in the dark and riding home.

Thank you, Mr. Nakamura!
posted by loquacious at 9:19 AM on April 3 [14 favorites]

posted by riverlife at 9:34 AM on April 3

posted by Lynsey at 11:38 AM on April 3

posted by JoeXIII007 at 4:27 PM on April 3

Back in the day, red and green LED's cost like $.30, and blue LED's cost something like $11.00.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:36 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]

Seconding loquacious.

I love, not just like but actually love, 3 of my flashlights. One is a tiny warm high CRI (color reproduction index) flashlight that just outputs a couple hundred lumens on high. It is a mule (no focusing optics) with programable controller that allows a very low moonlight mode. It will not iluminante acres of forest, but it is great for looking at bugs, mushrooms and other small stuff I find during night walks. Drop it next to a mushroom and creates a tiny little fairy postcard, with natural warm mid day colors, without disturbing anyone more than a few meters away.

The next one is also high CRI, slightly cooler, with high quality adjustable optics. Not a dedicated thrower, not a mule, but versatile in between. Wider body because of the large lithium batteries, settings from moonlight (I believe I set it at 29 lumens) to around 1200 lumens in normal mode, close to 2k on turbo, but overheats after a minute or so. I've illuminated a whole tree from 200 meters away. This one has saved mine and other's asses so many times it has paid for itself many times over.

The last one is a home built monstrosity that uses 5 high intensity deep-red leds. Can illuminate a whole campsite in a trippy monochromatic deep red that does not mess up night vision. Great for astronomy nights, but even better for watching racoons and coyotes at night, they don't seem to notice it.

If you can I highly recommend trying a high CRI flashlight. It is like magic.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:51 PM on April 3 [5 favorites]

But Dr. Curare, you don't name the brands or model #s of your recommended high CRI flashlights.

I would probably buy the brighter one if I knew what it was.
posted by jamjam at 10:45 PM on April 3

The very bright one and the red one I built from parts that I got from Mountain Electronics (Leds, drivers, optics) using some waterproof bodies from cheap alibaba flashlights.

The tiny mule I feel douchy talking about, but it is a custom build from a flashlight builder in reddit. There is a flashlight subreddit where you can get in touch with flashlight builders and modders, but you need to get through the tacticool pissing contest bullshit.

I know there are good reputable brands, but I've been out of the loop for some time, sorry.
posted by Dr. Curare at 10:57 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Back in the day, red and green LED's cost like $.30, and blue LED's cost something like $11.00.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:36 PM on April 3
I remember being shown the "new amazing" 5mm blue LEDs in a professional electronic component catalog in, I think, 1992. They were $22 each. Now I have literally hundreds of them in a plastic bag in my workshop, just as a matter of course. It feels like an embarrassment of riches. I think about that sometimes.
posted by Horkus at 11:58 PM on April 3

posted by filtergik at 5:20 AM on April 4

Some random known good LED flashlight brands, and this is by no means inclusive:


The make the Aurora series of keychain lights. I have an A5XU, which has about a 400 lumen warm white Nichia emitter, with a warm white side light and a UV light all in a tiny package and a built in USB rechargeable battery. They make some of the smallest yet brightest lights out there.

These range from about $15 to well over $100. The price differences are based on which model series and what the body/chassis material is, which ranges from polycarbonate plastic to brass and steel and titanium. I've even seen some "timascus" bodies which is damascus style titanium billet.

I've had these lights fail after hard use but they have a really good replacement policy and warranty. Every single flashlight is tracked and has a unique serial number.

Wowtac. Funny name, great budget lights. I have the Wowtac A1, which is the right angle/headlamp light I use on my bike helmet. I think I got mine on sale for $20. Comes with a fancy high capacity 18650 style battery that has built in USB micro recharging. I've used this light in heavy rain and even in the shower for shaving, and it'll even handle limited immersion because it has no external charging ports.

Convoy. I don't own any of these but these are bullet proof lights at budget prices. They make some of the favorites of the flashlight world like the S2 and S2+.

Wurkkos, Thrunite, Sofirn, Manker, Skilhunt, Lupin, Acebeam, Zebralight, more...

Other common brands worth mentioning: Nitecore, OLight, Imalent. These companies make good lights but are considered to be "starter" lights by the flashlight community. They often have weird proprietary charging systems and manufacturing issues. They're all mostly much better lights than you can find in hardware or department stores and decent price points but once you get into flashlights they look overpriced and not well made. They tend to be a little behind the curve of tech, too.

I have one of Imalent's smallest lights, the LD10. It's about the size of my thumb and puts out 1200 lumens in turbo mode and also makes a decent handwarmer if it's cold out.

Actually, I should just post this and let the experts tell you all about it:

I don't have nearly as many flashlights as the nerds in the /r/flashlight reddit but they've helped me find these lights that are affordable and work well. I only have like 4-5 fancy-ish flashlights and I wait for them to go on sale.

Also, some of these lights have an entire operating system, the most complicated and common one being Anduril. You can program Anduril yourself or use it as-is. It has a ton of features like choosing what the most common brightnesses and features are available, as well as program aux lights on switches to do things like display battery charge state with colors or blinks, emitter temperatures, when thermal throttling happens and at what temps and so much more.

Some of these flashlights have RGB LEDs built in to the area around the main emitter or business end and you can program them to stay on all the time since they draw so little power so you can always find your flashlight in the dark or use it as a nightlight, and you can use Anduril to select what colors they use or make them do things like color cycling and other features.

Amusingly Anduril also has a feature called "muggle mode" so you can hand your flashlight to someone and they don't accidentally turn it on full power turbo mode and blind everyone in the room or light themselves on fire with it. It usually also hides the more complicated features of the flashlight so someone doesn't get stuck in a weird mode or mess up your settings.

Last: One of the most recent lights that's an /r/flashlight favorite is really silly and kind of ridiculous, and it's called the NanoGT, which I believe is based on a BLF light called "Giggles the Thrower" or something like that.

The original GTs were larger hand lights designed to "throw" lumens as far as possible with a combination of optics and emitter like a pocket searchlight. We're talking like 1000-4000 foot ranges with very tight beams and a narrow focus like a fat laser beam.

Well apparently some maniac wanted that in a keychain light so the NanoGT was born. It's a seriously tiny light, just about the size of my Rovyvon or Imalent keychain lights, but with a tiny high precision optical reflector.

It's... totally useless. In full power mode it kills the tiny battery in something like seconds or a minute or two and has to start throttling down due to thermal loads even if it had a bigger battery.

But it's a flashlight smaller than your thumb that has a beam like one of those old school 12 V "one million candlepower!!!" search lights you'd have to plug in to a cigarette lighter or hook up to a car battery, the kind of thing people used for hunting or fishing and it's totally ridiculous.

Anyway, for a price in the 20-50 range you can get a flashlight that fits in your pocket or even on your keychain and is brighter than car headlights and laughs at anything you can buy from traditional stores like REI or any big box store.
posted by loquacious at 11:39 AM on April 4 [7 favorites]

Can I just say as an aside that as an electronics hobbiest that goddamn why do all the LEDs out there have to be ultrabright? It's such a chore to read many spec sheets just to find a low mcd (candlepower) led. And then you can't find it in a shade that's nice. It's all blinding blue and never a soft blue-green. I just want to indicate something, not make it so I can't see the related knob!

Also I'm old and I remember life before blue LEDs. It was nicer in the same way that pre-internet BBS systems were compared to the nasty that came later; you couldn't imagine it until you saw it, but by then it was everywhere.
posted by Catblack at 12:03 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]

Thank you, loquacious!
posted by jamjam at 3:25 PM on April 4

posted by luckynerd at 6:31 PM on April 4

So he's to blame for the retina-frying LED headlights on cars that dazzle my 48-year old eyes for many minutes after they pass and render me almost completely blind while they're approaching?
posted by drstrangelove at 5:47 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

blame for the retina-frying LED headlights on cars that dazzle my 48-year old eyes for many minutes after they pass and render me almost completely blind while they're approaching?

Naw, that's just 'late stage capitalism' ... for example... BMW's optional headlight dimming package...

Just wait until self-driving cars are in full-force and the rich can pick and choose their package based on whose safety they want to prioritize ... pedestrians or themselves... oh crap, that's already been done...
posted by rozcakj at 11:28 AM on April 5

Gotta agree with drstrangelove about the &$@!% LED headlights makers are installing now. Their use has seemed to coincide with the apparent loss of any thought on properly aiming the damned things. They all seem to be purposely aimed to blind oncoming motorists. And god help your retinas if its some mega-pickup. Then the lights sit so high it’s impossible to not be blinded a quarter mile away.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:28 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

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