Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Stanley Electric, Sharp, Sanyo, Sumitomo, Toshiba, Toyoda Gosei, NEC, Sony, Philips and two dozen universities spent a total of $1 billion trying to catch up to Shuji Nakamura throughout the 1990s. Two years ago he was offered a dozen professorships at 10 American and two European universities as well as positions at five of the U.S.’s top high-tech firms, for salaries as high as $500,000 a year and stock options worth $10 million.
That’s when he decided to teach.
UCSB’s Materials Dept. showed Nakamura to his new office in Engineering II in Fall 2000. He has his own lab at the university as well, where acquisition prices are measured in six figures. The lab was completed two months ago – about the same time Nakamura received notice that he would be the recipient of the 2002 Franklin Medal, a prize awarded in past years to researchers with names like Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Edwin Hubble, Guglielmo Marconi, Robert Millikan, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Orville Wright, Stephen Hawking and Jacques Cousteau.
A month later, Nakamura received the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology Grant (ERATO) grant from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation worth 1.7 billion yen or $16 million to further develop his research.
He also received large amounts of money from the U.S. government for classified research. The research takes place on campus and has to do with anthrax detection and blue lasers. That’s all Nakamura will say.
Not bad for someone who’s worked here for less than two years.
Nakamura is responsible for constructing the first blue and green light emitting diodes (LEDs). Light emitting diodes are effectively ultra-efficient lights. An example of an LED is the little blinking light on your computer. Until recently, LEDs only came in red, orange and pale yellowish green. Now Nakamura’s green LEDs and his improved red ones are being used in traffic lights.
The blue LEDs are being used in lasers for information technologies. The higher frequency of light emitted by a blue laser translates into a significantly higher amount of information that can be stored and transmitted using the devices. This means higher resolution laser printers, CDs with four times the music, and DVDs with six times their current storage capacity.
Already, Hitachi Ltd., LG Electronics Inc., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Pioneer Corp., Sony Corp. and Thomson Multimedia have agreed on standards for improved DVDs and players that will be available as early as next year.
What’s more, as the rainbow of LED colors mounts, researchers are drawing closer to being able to produce white light using LEDs.
“New light bulbs made with gallium nitride will last 20 to 30 years and use much less energy than existing light bulbs,” Nakamura said. “If we switch even 20 percent of our light bulbs to LEDs we can save several billion dollars per year and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Nakamura works with semiconductors – more specifically a material called gallium nitride, which some engineers have taken to calling “the new silicon.” Gallium nitride can be used to produce high power electronic devices so robust and durable, Nakamura claims some of them could survive a ride on the outside of the space shuttle with no cooling or heat shielding.
He is currently working on producing bulk crystals of gallium nitride, which will be even more robust, efficient and commercially viable.
“Using gallium nitride we can build any kind of electronic device,” Nakamura said.
But gallium nitride was not always the new silicon of the electronics industry. Before Nakamura started his research, it was more along the lines of old hat. The material contains 10,000,000,000 defects per square centimeter, which was once thought to be 10 million times greater than the number thought necessary for a successful product. In addition, no one knew how to produce p-type gallium nitride, which was necessary before any semiconductor could be built with the material.
Enter Shuji Nakamura.
THE ROAD TO EXCESS
Before he was a star, Nakamura was a grad student. He graduated in 1979 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tokushima (think Riverside) on the island of Shikoku – Japan’s rough equivalent of Iowa. With a wife and a child on the way, Nakamura decided to remain on Shikoku, rather than risk the ultra-competitive job market of Tokyo.
He took a job with the local electronics firm, Nichia Corporation. Nichia employed around 200 people at the time and when Nakamura joined the company’s research and development department, he was the only person in the division with a master’s degree. In fact he very nearly was the research and development department, along with his boss and one other researcher.
The company set Nakamura to work.
“I spent 10 years building materials for conventional LEDs,” Nakamura said. “At the time we had no money and no people, so I had to construct a furnace myself by collecting materials from the garbage. The company had a big furnace to make phosphors. They threw away a heater and some other materials. So I gathered the garbage and I constructed a small furnace.”
Nakamura worked at his specialized furnace producing raw materials for LEDs and then actual LEDs. Occasionally, oxygen would leak into the furnace and cause an explosion complete with toxic fumes. Nakamura, clad in a space suit and armed with a fire extinguisher became a common and eventually comical sight around the office.
While his co-workers laughed in good spirit, Nakamura’s bosses were not as amused. Despite the fact that he was turning out industry-standard products, the company’s small size prevented it from competing on the larger market and Nichia blamed him for its failures.
Nakamura’s dream during those years was to develop blue and green LEDs.
“Ten years after joining the company, I desperately made the decision to start research on blue and green LEDs,” Nakamura said. “I had consulted my company boss and he said, ‘No, you can’t do that type of research because we have no money, no people, nothing. You can’t do that because all of the big companies and all the industries in the world have tried to develop blue and green LEDs. All those people failed. Why should you be able to do it?’ But I was desperate after 10 years and I started the research after talking to the company’s president – it was a small company.”
Nakamura demanded $3.3 million for his research and a one-year research sabbatical at the University of Florida Gainesville. Approaching the company’s president with these requests, Nakamura expected to be fired. Instead, he got exactly what he asked for.
COMING TO AMERICA
Nakamura chose the University of Florida Gainesville because of its collection of devices for metalorganic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD). These were the machines that would be necessary to allow Nakamura to work with gallium nitride.
Upon arriving in Florida, Nakamura was informed that two of the university’s three machines were on loan to professors.
“So they said only one MOCVD is available, but that one is under construction,” Nakamura said. “They said after constructing the MOCVD I could use it. So three graduate students worked together with me to construct the MOCVD. We worked 10 months to complete it, but I was only there for one year so I only got to use it for two months.”
After returning to Japan, Nakamura ordered a commercial MOCVD for Nichia and began his research. The commercial version of the MOCVD did not allow him to grow gallium nitride. However, the unique skills he had developed during his years of running the company’s research and development division allowed him to modify the equipment himself. In a couple hours, he could make changes to his devices himself that researchers elsewhere would have to farm out to machinists over a period of months.
“I spent almost one and a half years modifying the MOCVD,” Nakamura said, “and afterward, in half a year, I succeeded … in making the highest-quality gallium nitride in the world. That was the end of 1990. Since that time I achieved a breakthrough in my research and in the field every several months. Every several months I wrote a very nice paper and assigned a patent.”
Between the years of 1991 and 1999, Nakamura authored 146 technical papers, 6 books and 10 textbook chapters on gallium nitride semiconductors. He was eventually awarded his Ph.D. for this work by the University of Tokushima.
In 2000, Nakamura left Nichia Corporation, which now makes $500 million per year off of his blue and green LEDs. In fall of 2001 he began teaching at UCSB. His next project: tenure.