Inventor and engineer Nick Holonyak revolutionized the lighting industry with his development of the first visible LED (light emitting diode).
An LED is a semiconductor device that produces light from electricity. LEDs last a long time and do not break easily, especially compared to incandescent light bulbs. They can also produce many different colors and are energy efficient. Most of the energy makes light, not heat. The previous LED design used infrared radiation, which humans are unable to see. Holonyak’s LED design is seen in almost every electronic device from smartphones to flashlights to streetlights. Holonyak received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2004 for his contributions to the electrical engineering field.
Nick Holonyak was born in Zeigler, Illinois on November 3, 1928 to Ukrainian immigrants. He originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as a coal miner, but his father persuaded him to work above ground at the Illinois Central Railroad. This job demanded intense physical labor, and the grueling work made Holonyak want to switch paths. He eventually enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he received a Bachelor of Science (1950), Master of Science (1951), and doctorate in electrical engineering (1954). Just after earning a bachelor’s degree, he became the first graduate student of John Bardeen, an electrical engineer and physicist who is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice.
After serving in the military and working at Bell Labs and General Electric, Holonyak returned to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1963 as a faculty member. There, he created the first quantum-well semiconductor laser with his student Edward Rezek in 1977. These lasers were used in CD and DVD players, laser printers, and other machines. They also play an instrumental role in transmitting information over the Internet.
In 1993, Holonyak was named the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He later retired from his position as a faculty member in 2013.
In 2019, UIUC renamed its Micro and Nanotechnology Lab as the Nick Holonyak, Jr. Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at the university’s Grainger College of Engineering.
Holonyak holds over 30 patents and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), among other organizations.
In addition to receiving honorary degrees, Holonyak has been recognized with numerous awards including the National Medal of Science (1990), the Global Energy International Prize (2003), the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2003) and the IEEE Medal of Honor (2003). Most recently, he was awarded the 2021 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering “for the creation and development of LED lighting”.
In 2005, Holonyak received the Order of Lincoln Medallion in Edwardsville, IL, which is awarded annually to six outstanding people who were born or have lived in Illinois. Holonyak was recognized for his light-emitting diode and semiconductor laser technology. In 2008, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.