IEEE establishes new prestigious award to honor LED inventor Nick Holonyak, Jr.


Laura Schmitt

One of the most celebrated inventors of the last 60 years, Nick Holonyak, Jr., has won all the prestigious awards bestowed on engineers—National Medals of Science and Technology, National Academy of Engineering Draper Prize, Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, Japan Prize, Global Energy Prize, MIT-Lemelson Prize, IEEE Edison Medal, and IEEE Medal of Honor, for example.

Nick Holonyak, Jr., the John Bardeen Endowed Chair Emeritus in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics
Nick Holonyak, Jr., the John Bardeen Endowed Chair Emeritus in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics

Recently, IEEE established a major new award named for the Illinois ECE professor emeritus and alumnus, placing the inventor of the world’s first practical semiconductor laser and light emitting diode (LED) in the pantheon of engineering legends.

The IEEE Nick Holonyak, Jr. Medal for Semiconductor Optoelectronic Technologies will recognize an individual or a team of up to three in number each year who have made outstanding contributions to semiconductor optoelectronic devices and systems, including high-efficiency semiconductor devices and electronics. Optoelectronic devices, including laser and light-emitting diodes, photodetectors, and photonic integrated circuits, are key technologies used in lighting, lidar, self-driving cars, and high-speed “6G” silicon-related photonics, fiber-optic communications, and data centers.

According to Georgia Tech Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Russell Dupuis, Holonyak’s work underpins much of the Internet and the World-Wide Web and many important electronic and optoelectronic devices and systems that are essential to operation of modern developed societies.

“However, Holonyak’s name is not as well-known as it should be,” said Dupuis, who earned his PhD under the direction of Holonyak at Illinois in 1973. “It was important to me that his contributions be recognized by IEEE, the world’s largest professional technical society, and also to make sure his legacy has a continuing presence in the minds of our young electrical engineers.”

Perhaps Holonyak’s most impactful work was the invention of the world’s first visible semiconductor laser and LED in October 1962 while at General Electric (GE)—ironically the company founded by Thomas Edison. At the time, most researchers were trying to make lasers out of commercially available semiconductor material like gallium arsenide (GaAs) or gallium phosphide (GaP), which was easy to work with but would produce infra-red light.

Holonyak, on the other hand, had been experimenting with making novel materials that could produce visible red light by combining GaAs and GaP. Other researchers scoffed at his approach, thinking these new alloys would produce defect-riddled crystals incapable of generating coherent light.

Although dim by today’s standards, the red glow of his first semiconductor laser demonstrated to the world that alloys were not only viable, but they were the best way to produce light from semiconductor material. By the end of 1962, GE was selling red alloy lasers and LEDs. Today, all high brightness LEDs are made from alloy materials.

Recognizing the efficiency potential of LEDs, Holonyak predicted in a 1963 Reader’s Digest article that LEDs would someday replace Edison’s light bulb.

It took roughly 50 years and the contributions of many engineers and scientists, but Holonyak’s prediction came true. Today, visible LEDs have replaced Edison’s incandescent light as the widespread adoption of LED technology saves consumers billions of dollars while decreasing the world’s overall demand for energy. As a result, the global market for LEDs is predicted to exceed $108 billion by 2025.

“Edison’s name is famous, but we made his light obsolete,” said Holonyak, who at age 93 is working on a manuscript about his interactions with his Illinois colleague and friend John Bardeen, the co-inventor of the transistor and two-time Nobel Laureate in physics. “What we did is important—I was lucky to have worked with some really good people. We’ve got reason to be proud.”

Electrical and computer engineering professor Milton Feng, left, frequently collaborated with Holonyak. The two developed the transistor laser.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

In addition to the LED, Holonyak produced other noteworthy innovations during his career. For example, in the mid-1950s, while at Bell Laboratories, he contributed a key component to the nascent silicon technology—the p-n-p-n switch in the diffused alloy form. Nobel laureate William Shockley later took a version of this switch with him to California as a basis of his start-up company, which spawned the creation of Silicon Valley.

In the late 1950s, while at GE, Holonyak invented the shorted-emitter and five-layer silicon-controlled rectifier, which was incorporated into household light dimmers and trigger-controlled power tools.

In 1963, Bardeen invited his former PhD student to return to his alma mater as a faculty member. During the next four decades, Holonyak and his students demonstrated the first quantum-well laser, introduced impurity-induced layer disordering and the stable native oxide and improved vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers—developments that enabled semiconductor lasers to be used in CD and DVD players and power the fiber-optic communications that underpin the Internet and cloud computing, as well as medical devices.

In the early 2000s, Holonyak, ECE Professor Milton Feng, and their students invented the transistor laser. This unique device outputs electricity and light simultaneously, making it an ideal platform for integrated photonics like an all-optical logic processor.

Holonyak could not travel to the ceremony, but Dupuis and Craford (middle front) accepted the QEP on the team's behalf.
Holonyak could not travel to the ceremony, but Dupuis and Craford (middle front) accepted the QEP on the team's behalf.

Another legacy of Holonyak’s career is the 60 doctoral students he guided and mentored in his research group. Many of these engineers have made useful semiconductor devices themselves. Two of those students, M. George Craford and Russell Dupuis, refined LED technology, paving the way for the high-quality, commercial LEDs available today. Holonyak shared several highly prestigious awards with Craford and Dupuis, including the 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize, the 2015 Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering, and the 2002 National Medal of Technology.

The Holonyak Medal will be the third IEEE medal named for a University of Illinois graduate. The Richard W. Hamming Medal is named for computing pioneer and 1968 A.M. Turing Award winner Richard Hamming (PhD 1942, mathematics), best known for inventing error-detecting and error-correcting codes while at Bell Telephone Laboratories.

The Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal is named for Jack Kilby (BSEE 1947, Honorary 1988), who received the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit. Later in his career at Texas Instruments, Kilby invented the semiconductor-based thermal printer, and he designed the first IC-based electronic calculator.

“The new medal will be an enduring tribute to Holonyak,” said Professor Bruce Hajek, Head of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. “It will inspire the invention of future semiconductor optoelectronic devices that build on Holonyak’s inventions and thereby further improve the quality of life for all humanity.”

Nominations for the Holonyak Medal will open December 1, 2022, and the first award will be presented in 2024 at the annual IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit and Honors Ceremony.