Japanese scientist Shuji Nakamura has deservedly won this year’s Millennium Technology Prize — the world’s highest honour for technology development, equivalent to the Nobel prizes for science. The award acknowledges Prof. Nakamura’s work in developing the blue light-emitting diode, or LED, which has a wide range of applications. To recall: early LEDs were only available in red. Although the palette gradually expanded to green, orange and yellow, white proved elusive till 1994, when Nakamura developed blue LEDs using gallium nitride. This made it possible to produce white light by combining blue, red and green.
Today, LEDs are preferred substitutes for even traffic signals as they need less power, run cooler and last much longer. The shorter wavelength of blue light also enables gallium nitride blue lasers to store information more densely than red lasers, giving CDs enormous recording capacity. The LED’s other applications are in laser surgery and dentistry and in cleaning air and water among many others. This could play a big role in countering pollution.
Nakamura’s recognition is also a reminder that it’s time we stopped highlighting the apparent blur between the roles of ‘scientists’ and ‘technologists’. As the pursuit of knowledge about the world, science by itself rarely makes a difference to our lives. Technology applies this scientific understanding to accomplish specific ends. As Nakamura’s ‘blue laser revolution’ proves, all that matters is how science and technology come together with something useful.