Nakamura on blue light history and future
Nobel Laureate Shuji Nakamura provided the keynote address to the attendees at the 57th annual Electronic Materials Conference held this week in Columbus, Ohio. His talk on “The History and Developments of InGaN-based LEDs and Laser Diodes” informed and entertained the audience of materials researchers, particularly since he followed first-principles of materials science and his natural inspiration to create the world’s first commercially viable blue LEDs over 20 years ago.
Nakamura-sensei is now legendary for showing excellent GaN-based blue LED functionality in an era when ZnSe was the main material explored by almost all scientists in the world due to six orders of magnitude superior defectivity level for the latter material (due to near zero lattice mismatch between ZnSe and GaAs, instead of the extreme mismatch between GaN and sapphire). In the 57th EMC keynote, he confessed that the only reason he began work on GaN was that almost everyone else was ignoring it so he could easily get papers published on the way to earning a Ph.D., and he initially had no plans to try to create a blue LED with the material.
However, when he bought a new MOCVD reactor to grow GaN on sapphire substrates he found the capabilities of the tool to be lacking so he began daily hardware modifications and test runs, and after some months began to get surprisingly strong data. Soon his group at Nichia was reporting world record GaN optoelectronic properties, and had developed both n- and p-type GaN. However, from first principles it was known that a double-heterojunction (DH) structure would allow for band-gap and hence wavelength tuning, so he then developed the world’s first useful InGaN MOCVD process and by 1993 was able to issue a press release claiming 1000 mcd LED output. “Indium gallium nitride is the most important material, but the Nobel committee didn’t say anything about Indium gallium nitride,” reminded Nakamura.
Most of the rest of the story is well known by now, including his precedent-setting lawsuit with Nichia, move to UCSB, and founding of Soraa.
Nakamura’s vision for the the future of blue (and through integration with phosphors “white”) light can be summed up as LEDs are good but lasers are better. Relatively speaking, with lasers the current density can by many times higher, and BMW and Audi have prototype laser headlamps that can reach 2-3x farther down the road compared to the best lamps today. The challenges today are to improve efficiency and cost. Efficiency for blue LEDs are now 50-60% while lasers are only ~30%. Also, blue laser production cost is now ~10x higher than that for blue LEDs.