UCSB professor and researcher Shuji Nakamura was recently awarded the $1.3 million Millennium Technology Prize for work that will help the environment, save energy costs and revolutionize lighting.

The president of Finland will present the prize to Nakamura on Sept. 8 for his research in the field of advanced lighting. The award is given once every other year in recognition of outstanding technological advances.

Nakamura, who is a professor of materials and also of electrical and computer engineering, researches blue, green and white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and the blue laser diode (LD). He was the first to discover a way to viably manufacture blue LEDs, and his research made possible an important element of the next-generation of DVD players. He currently is co-director of the Solid State Lighting and Display Center on campus.

For a long time before Nakamura’s breakthrough, blue LEDs were considered the “holy grail” of his field, because it would be possible to combine them with red and green LEDs in order to create white light. This light would last longer than traditional light bulbs, and would be more energy efficient.

“In the 1980s, blue was a missing color in the field of LEDs,” Nakamura said. “If the blue color were available for the LEDs and LDs, people could make any color … for applications such as displays [such as television], lighting and others.”

Between 1993 and 1996, Nakamura worked for Nichia Corporation in Japan. He was interested in solving the blue LED problem, and he said he took a unique approach to the dilemma.

“In the 1980s, more than 99 percent of the researchers in the world were working on the development of blue LEDs and LDs using ZnSe [Zinc Selenide]-based material instead of GaN [Gallium Nitride]-based material,” Nakamura said. “I thought GaN would be a better material because it is physically robust, and I would be doing something different than the big companies.”

Nakamura’s strategy resulted in new energy-reduction applications. He said LED lighting approaches 100 percent energy efficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this technology would save $98 billion in energy costs by 2020 if it were deployed in place of traditional lighting sources.

“This lighting would be operated with clean energy thanks to its high efficiency and low voltage operation,” he said. “All of the conventional lighting, such as incandescent bulbs, fluorescent lamps and others, would be replaced with the white LEDs in order to save energy and resources. Also, these white LEDs would be operated … by a solar cell in the daytime.”

Nakamura said he will donate some of his prize money to helping spread his lighting technology in less-developed areas of the world.

“I will donate some of these funds to further research at universities and groups that implement solid state lighting in the third world,” Nakamura said. “[These include] the group called Light Up The World, or Engineers Without Borders.”

Nakamura said he would continue to work on solid-state lighting applications in the future, and that he was pleased that the global community understands the importance of his research.

“People have acknowledged the importance of solid state lighting and violet LDs,” Nakamura said. “This is most important for me.”