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Nobel Prize goes to co-founder of Fremont light company

Author: David R. Baker
Publish Date: 
Nakamura and two other scientists received the honor for inventing a blue light emitting diode in the early 1990s. The white LED bulbs now proliferating in homes and businesses around the world — slowly supplanting incandescent lights and corkscrew fluorescents — all sprang from that discovery.
Founded in 2008, Soraa is just one of many companies now making the highly efficient lights, which produce a bright, full-spectrum glow using a fifth as much energy as an old-school incandescent. Nakamura’s discovery, unknown to most at the time, touched off a lighting revolution that two decades later is now gathering momentum.
“It is very satisfying to see that my dream of LED lighting has become a reality,” Nakamura said Tuesday.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted the discovery’s potential impact when awarding the prize to Nakamura and researchers Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano. The three men will split the $1.1 million award that accompanies the physics prize. They’ll also see their names added to a list of past winners that includes Albert Einstein and Pierre and Marie Curie.
“Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps,” the academy predicted, in a prepared statement.
Limited use
An LED is essentially a semiconductor that emits light when a current is applied. Their use stretches back into the 1960s. But at first, they were limited to certain colors — red and green — that made them better suited to clock radios and digital watches than floor lamps.
The arrival of the blue LED changed that.
The key was using a new material — gallium nitride. Akasaki and Amano, working together at Nagoya University in Japan, developed a technique for growing high-quality gallium nitride crystals that could be fashioned into LEDs. Nakamura, employed by a small company called Nichia Chemicals, came up with his own technique.
Combining blue, green and red produced a white LED, which for a small pool of researchers had long been a holy grail.
“This was huge,” said John Rogers, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What we didn’t have was white LEDs, and we couldn’t get there without the blue. This revolutionized so many aspects of our daily lives.”
Cameras and smartphones now use white LEDs for flash. Cars use them to illuminate the road.
The revolution, however, wasn’t confined to technology.
In a break with Japanese corporate culture, Nakamura sued Nichia over his discovery, demanding a cut of the profits that came from it. He eventually settled for a little more than $8 million.
He also left the company and took a position with UC Santa Barbara, working to hone his technology. His work caught the attention of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who was looking for ideas that could slash energy use worldwide.
'Something big’
“I blindly called Nakamura and his colleague Steve DenBaars one day, and I said, 'I want to meet you and talk about doing something big,’” Khosla said.
Khosla persuaded Nakamura, DenBaars and their colleague James Speck to found a company. He was, and is, convinced that their particular variation on LEDs — the only one to use gallium nitride crystals on a substrate made of the same material — was the best available.
“You want great light, low cost and great energy savings,” Khosla said.
Soraa, still privately held, has raised more than $100 million in funding to date. While competitors such as GE and Cree offer LED bulbs for homes, Soraa targets restaurants, stores and hotels, whose high energy bills make LEDs more attractive.
Soraa bulbs cost about $20-$25 and are still manufactured in Fremont. The company is planning a larger factory in New York state, but plans to keep its headquarters in Fremont.
The company’s executives couldn’t be more pleased with their newly famous founder.
“Everything you see today leverages what he did 20 years ago,” said Chief Technology Officer Mike Krames.

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