Brilliant!: Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology

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A revolution in the way we use artificial lighting is underway, one that is every bit as sweeping and significant as Edison’s invention of the light bulb. The technology of light emitting diodes (LEDs) is ready for widespread implementation. Its impacts will include a reduction in energy consumption for electric lighting by up to 80 percent.

Brilliant! tells the story of Shuji Nakamura, a gifted Japanese engineer who came out of nowhere to stun the world with his announcement that he had created the last piece in the puzzle needed for manufacturing solid-state white lights. The invention of this holy-grail product, which promises to make Edison’s light bulb obsolete, had eluded the best minds at the top electronic firms for twenty-five years. Until his startling announcement, Nakamura had not even been on the radar screen of most industry observers.

Veteran technology writer Bob Johnstone traces the career of Nakamura, which included many years of obstinate individual effort as well as a dramatic legal battle pitting him against his former Japanese employer. Over a five-year span, Nakamura distinguished himself with an unprecedented series of inventions—bright blue, green, ultraviolet, and then white LEDs, plus a blue laser that will play an essential role in the next-generation DVD players. Then he was forced to leave Nichia Chemical, the company where he had worked for twenty years, and his former employer sued him. The result was a multimillion-dollar settlement in a landmark decision that acknowledged, for the first time, the rights of individual inventors working in a corporate context. Today, Nakamura holds a professor’s chair at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he continues to develop the technology of LEDs.

Johnstone, the first Western journalist to meet and interview Nakamura, has received the brilliant engineer’s full cooperation through a series of exclusive interviews given for the book. Johnstone has also interviewed other key players in the imminent lighting revolution, providing an exciting preview of the technological, entrepreneurial, and artistic creativity that will soon be unleashed by Nakamura’s inventions.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] compelling account of Nakamura’s story, packed with salutary lessons for would-be Edisons.”

Financial Times

“[Nakamura] is clearly a great subject for an engaging book, and author Bob Johnstone does not disappoint…he weaves a lucid, captivating narrative around Nakamura's struggles to achieve his luminous dream…Johnstone offers readers much more than a Nakamura biography, for this is also an insightful first look at several key players in a solid-state lighting industry that is already grossing more than $4 billion annually…Brilliant! is a superb introduction to this dramatic story of high technology in action, which continues to this day.”

IEEE Spectrum magazine

“The longtime technology reporter…has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of abstruse material science that is unmatched in the popular science press. You don't even have to understand every word he says to appreciate him… His newest book, Brilliant! . . . focuses the narrative on the man most responsible for the explosion in LED lighting that is currently sweeping the globe.” “How the World Works” column

“[A]n impeccably researched, comprehensive history of the SSL [solid-state lighting] industry, whose products will revolutionize the way we see the world.”

Daily Yomiuri, Tokyo, Japan  (one of Japan's leading English-language newspapers)

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Publishers Weekly

Australian technology writer Johnstone (Never Mind the Laptops) heralds what he believes will be a revolution in lighting: light emitting diodes, or LEDs, "tiny specks of semiconductor material that shine when hooked up to a voltage." They consume 80% less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 100,000 hours. According to Johnstone, in front of the revolution is Shuji Nakamura, a Japanese scientist who solved a series of difficult technical problems to develop a blue LED bright enough to be used in commercial settings. Johnstone is utterly enamored of Nakamura ("Shuji took off. It was as if he had rockets in his feet like Mighty Atom, his boyhood comic book superhero"), and two section of the book cover his technical triumph and the legal and professional complications that accompanied his departure from his Japanese employer. This section provides an interesting window into the differences between the Japanese and American approaches to scientific research. The book's other sections expound on the present and future uses of LEDs, for which Johnstone is evangelical in his enthusiasm. Since the technical descriptions of the chemical processes that produce blue LED are difficult, in the end, average readers may find Johnstone's infatuation with Nakamura and LEDs hard to share. Illus. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591024620
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Series: Press Monographs
  • Pages: 1
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Bob Johnstone (Melbourne, Australia) is the author of We Were Burning: Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age and Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning. He has also contributed numerous articles on technology to Forbes, Nature, New Scientist, MIT Technology Review, Wired, and the Far Eastern Economic Review.
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Read an Excerpt


shuji nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology
By Bob Johnstone

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2007 Bob Johnstone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-462-0

Chapter One

Shuji Nakamura would never have made his brilliant, worldchanging, bright blue breakthrough had he not while still a student done something that was, by Japanese standards, absolutely outrageous.

He got married.

And then, to make matters worse, he and his wife, Hiroko, had a baby.

The year was 1979 and, despite the effects of the second oil crisis, the Japanese electronics industry was just entering a boom that would last more than a decade. As a twenty-five-year-old graduate student with a master's degree in electrical engineering from Tokushima University, Shuji naturally expected that one of Japan's monster consumer appliance manufacturers would swallow him in its maw. Joining a big company would guarantee him lifelong employment as a salaryman. But the likes of Sony tend not to recruit married grads. The corporate dorms where such firms house their new hires are not suitable for couples, especially not couples with kids.

His marital handicap notwithstanding, Shuji did try to get a job at a big company. At Matsushita, he had the advantage of a recommendation from his university. But in his entrance exam he made the mistake of discussing the theoretical aspects of his thesis research. This was not agood idea. "We don't need theoreticians," the giant Osaka-based firm's recruiters told him as they rejected his application. (Matsushita was ever thus: when Konosuke Matsushita's scientists presented their company's founder with some promising new technology, the old man would typically ask just one question: "Will it make money?")

Nakamura told his thesis adviser at Tokushima, Osamu Tada, what had happened. His advising professor laughed at him: "Companies are in the business of making things-it's not surprising you failed if you wrote about theory."

At Kyocera, despite the lack of a recommendation, Shuji did better. Acting on his professor's advice he emphasized in his entrance exam possible practical applications of his work. Kyocera is known for recruiting employees from second-division technical schools-of which Tokushima was undoubtedly one-with the belief that, give them a chance and they will work that much harder. Shuji was interviewed by Kazuo Inamori, one of Japan's handful of successful high-tech entrepreneurs. "If you join our company, what would you like to do?" Kyocera's chief executive wanted to know. "Wherever you assign me," Shuji replied enthusiastically, "even if it's sales or accounting, I'm confident I can do well if you give me the opportunity."

This answer was evidently satisfactory, because Nakamura made it through to the next round of interviews. He was summoned to appear at the company's headquarters in Kyoto by eight o'clock the next morning. The journey presented the young man with logistical problems. Shuji was a country boy, unused to making long trips. Prior to his job-hunting sallies to the mainland he had rarely left Shikoku, the island of his birth.

To get to Kyocera he had to take the ferry from his home in Tokushima to Osaka, then get the train to Kyoto. But Nakamura underestimated the time the boat would take, and he was late arriving in Osaka. Fretting that he would not be on time, Shuji took a taxi all the way to the company. It was an expensive ride: every time the meter ticked over, his heart leapt. "I had never had such a hard time," he recalled many years later.

Shuji subsequently went back to Kyocera a third time. There, he was informed that the company had decided to offer him a job. He was also told the reason for the decision: he was a strange person. "Strange in what way?" Shuji wanted to know. "Because you are married," came the reply. The young man was, somewhat perversely, pleased to hear that his prospective employer considered him a bit of an oddball. But he was also relieved. Until then he had been an impecunious student, living with his wife's parents. Now, with a job in the big city, he would be able to earn a salary and support his family.

This was in February. But as April 1, the day on which Nakamura was due to report for work in Kyoto neared, he started having second thoughts. Shuji recalled a high school trip to Tokyo. For a teenage boy from a tiny country town, the metropolis had been an almost terrifying experience. All those crowds, the jam-packed rush-hour commuter trains. Just thinking about it made him feel sick.

Shuji had always been a nature lover. He treasured the ocean and the mountains, with which Shikoku is particularly well endowed. Now, as he contemplated his baby daughter Hitomi sleeping peacefully on the tatami mat in front of him, he determined that he did not want her to grow up in a big city. Had he still been single it might have been different. But not with a family: a big city was no place to raise children. At the same time, Shuji really wanted to work in a proper research laboratory at a major company. Characteristically for a Japanese man, he had not mentioned to his wife, who taught at a kindergarten attached to Tokushima University, that Kyocera had offered him a job. He had intended to tell Hiroko once everything was finalized.

Torn between two options, Shuji went to see Professor Tada and asked him what he should do-stay in Tokushima, or head for the mainland? "If you join a big company like Kyocera," Tada told his student, "you'll be a salaryman all your life, shunted around from one posting to the next. That's tough on a family. Your wife has a proper job, her family is here, so why don't you stay in Tokushima?" Having given this advice, Tada immediately pointed out the obvious drawback of such a decision. In Tokushima, there was nowhere for an electrical engineer to work. If Shuji elected to stay on the island, he might have a happy family life, but he would have to give up any notion of pursuing a career in his chosen field.

Following this conversation, Shuji agonized for two weeks over what to do. The choice was simple: family or career. Still, he could not bring himself to discuss the dilemma with Hiroko. The decision would be his and his alone. In the end, he decided to put his wife and family first-they would stay in Tokushima. He went back to see his professor to explain his decision. "I'm not going to join Kyocera," Nakamura told Tada. "I'm giving up my dream of doing research in a big company. Please help me to find a job-it doesn't matter what it is, I'll take whatever I can get."

Having understood that the young man had indeed made up his mind, Tada considered the problem. Then he replied: "I may be able to help. The president of Nichia Chemical is a good friend of mine. He's from Anan, the same hometown as me. I might be able to introduce him to you. Nichia's the only place I can think of-will that be all right?"

Nakamura had been living in Tokushima for six years, studying for his undergraduate and master's degrees. During that time he had never once heard of a company called Nichia Chemical. Nor was he altogether sure where Anan was. Nonetheless, he had little option but to accept Tada's offer of an introduction to the president of this obscure rural firm. Sensing his unease, Tada reassured him. "Don't worry, although it's a chemical company, they have a good measurements department, and they excel in analysis technology. I hear they're planning to make a move into the electronic device field. They may not be as good as Philips, but they're one of the world's leading manufacturers of phosphors."

Nakamura was not entirely sure that it was proper to compare Europe's top consumer appliance maker with a company whose name he had never heard, and that was based in a town whose whereabouts were unknown to him. He was also not convinced that, simply because the president was a good friend of his professor, Nichia would be prepared to hire him, just like that. After all, as Tada admitted, he had never introduced any of his students to the company before. "You may be number one in engineering here at the university," his professor conceded, "but I'm not sure whether Nichia will take you. We'll just have to go there and see."

So, one fine morning in late March, Nakamura met up with his professor at the university, and in the latter's car the pair headed off for the little town of Anan, some twenty miles to the south. As they drove down the narrow back roads, Nakamura began to feel uneasy. This was the sticks: could there really be a company located in such an out-of-the-way place? About an hour after leaving the university, they finally arrived at the firm's premises, located in the midst of green fields, surrounded by what appeared to be a pine forest. On the gate hung a wooden sign that read "Nichia Chemical Industries Ltd." For the most part the site consisted of single-story buildings roofed with galvanized iron. The place looked a bit like an old army barracks.

Nakamura got out of the car, then gasped as the stench of bad eggs hit him. It was sulfur, such as you might smell at a volcanic hot spring. Nichia used sulfur to produce their stock-in-trade, phosphors for fluorescent lamps and television screens. Shuji noticed that employees coming in and out of the buildings were wearing white coats stained with red and yellow. Chemical factory equals pollution, he could not help thinking to himself. And with his heart sinking, he wondered: Could I survive at a company like this?

Paying no attention to his student's misgivings, Tada strode off down a small path through the pine forest that led to one of the single-story, galvanized iron-roofed buildings. Inside was a reception area where they were served tea. Then Nichia's president, Nobuo Ogawa, appeared. After a perfunctory introduction-"This is Shuji Nakamura, please be good to him"-Tada immediately struck up an enthusiastic conversation with his old friend. The pair went on and on about their student days, completely ignoring the young man. Understandably tense, Shuji just sat there and listened.

Eventually, it was time for lunch. The three went out for their midday meal a local restaurant. Nakamura could not help but be impressed by such extravagance. An unsophisticated country boy like him was not used to eating out. Over lunch, the two old men-both at the time in their mid-sixties-continued swapping reminiscences, taking no notice whatsoever of Nakamura. After the meal Ogawa said goodbye, and the pair headed back to Tokushima. All the way home Nakamura fretted: Would Nichia really hire someone like him, whose speciality was electronic engineering, a completely different field from chemicals? He felt utterly helpless.

Back at the university, Tada asked him what he was going to do. Nakamura replied that he had already made up his mind. April was almost upon him. On graduation, he had to find a job in order to feed his family. He was in no position to pick and choose: a position at this small local chemical company was all there was. Once again, he asked his professor to do whatever he could to plead his case.

A couple of days later, while finishing up some work in his laboratory at the university, Nakamura got a phone call from Nichia. It was the president himself on the line. Ogawa said, "Tada introduced you, but are you really willing to come and work here?"

"I'm very keen," Nakamura implored. "Please let me join."

Then Ogawa said, "This is not the kind of company that someone like you should join. Nichia's not good enough for you-you should go and work for a better company, like Kyocera, since you have an offer from them. Our company is not in good shape, we may go bankrupt at any time, so think hard."

But Nakamura refused to take no for an answer. "I'm not too good for you," he pleaded. And after putting down the phone, he went to Tada once again to seek the professor's help.

It turned out that Ogawa had rejected Tada's initial overture because Nichia had already hired a half-dozen new employees, all the company could afford that year. But, knowing that Ogawa was always on the lookout for smart workers, Tada tried a different tack, telling him that Nakamura was the top student in the engineering department and a diligent worker to boot. This recommendation must have done the trick. When Nakamura phoned Nichia's president a few days later, to reiterate that he was determined to join the company, Ogawa sighed and said, "In that case, it can't be helped." In due course, a letter arrived confirming Nakamura's appointment.

Little did Shuji know it then, but as subsequent events would prove, joining Nichia was the best career move that he could possibly have made. However, this would not be immediately apparent. In the interim, the young man would have to serve an agonizing ten-year apprenticeship in the research, development, and commercialization of conventional infrared and red light emitting diodes, their component materials, and their intermediate products.

In the previous two decades, much work had already been done on these materials at companies and universities around the world. There was thus little in the way of new advances that Shuji could make. His first few years at Nichia would consist of a series of bitter frustrations until finally, unable to stand it any longer, he would demand to be allowed the freedom to do what he wanted to. When that moment came, remarkably, Ogawa would give Nakamura his blessing.

* * *

Nichia Chemical Industries, the company that Shuji had joined faute de mieux, was founded by Nobuo Ogawa in 1956. The son of dirt-poor rice farmers, Ogawa was born in 1912 in the small Shikoku town of Anan. He managed to escape the drudgery of farming via a military scholarship to Tokushima Technical College, as the university was then known, to study pharmacology. Following further qualification at a military medical college, Ogawa was commissioned as a pharmaceutical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army's ambulance corps, supplying drugs to military doctors. Among other places, Ogawa served at the battle of Guadalcanal. There, as many years later he liked to tell visitors, the forces fighting the Japanese included the future US president, John F. Kennedy.

Even in the army, Ogawa was already demonstrating his creative flair for making things. He contributed significantly to the frontline production of Ringer's solution, which is used to resuscitate bodily fluids after blood loss. In Tokyo he improved the phosphor plates for x-ray equipment used to diagnose tuberculosis. After the war and his release from the army, Ogawa worked briefly for an oil refinery. But his destiny was to be an entrepreneur. In 1948 he returned to Tokushima where he set up his first company, a pharmaceutical laboratory. Ogawa started literally from scratch, without a house, without even a bed, with nothing other than bright ideas and an unquenchable determination.

In 1951 Ogawa came up with an improved process for the production of high-quality anhydrous calcium chloride, a chemical used at that time in the production of the new wonder drug streptomycin. The problem was convincing skeptical drug makers of the superiority of his product. After a great deal of effort and significant personal hardship, Ogawa succeeded in gaining the approval of Japan's leading maker of the antibiotic. But it turned out that the streptomycin market was not large enough, forcing Ogawa to look for other applications for his material. He hit upon calcium phosphate, which is used in the production of phosphors-inorganic luminescent materials that glow when electrically excited-for fluorescent lamps. Ogawa had seen and been impressed by fluorescent lamps for the first time during the war in Mindanao, in the Philippines. He vowed that, when the war was over, he would make something like that.

A fluorescent lamp contains mercury vapor that, when ionized, emits ultraviolet light. This in turn excites a phosphor that emits white light. Tubes coated with the improved phosphor, made using the process Ogawa created, shone with a light that was more than 20 percent brighter than that of conventional fluorescent lamps. He established Nichia Chemical Industries to manufacture and sell this new product. The company's name is compounded from Nichi, meaning Japan, and a, for Asia. Its motto, "Ever researching for a brighter world," would subsequently prove particularly apt. Ogawa started the company with just twenty-two employees. He hired local folks, whose previous job had been making charcoal, and trained them in how to hold test tubes and perform chemical analysis.


Excerpted from brilliant! by Bob Johnstone Copyright © 2007 by Bob Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Part One OUT OF THE BLUE..................................21
Part Two THE FLOODGATES OPEN..............................147
Part Three FLIGHT OF THE GOLDEN GOOSE.....................211
Part Four THE END OF EDISON...............................257
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