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Japanese-born U.S. citizen Shuji Nakamura and Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for inventing a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source, leading to the creation of modern LED light bulbs.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

By his own account, Shuji Nakamura toiled long, thankless years on tight budget in a distant part of Japan to develop the technology that eventually earned him a share of the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics.

Tuesday's announcement of the prize winners was the latest twist in the remarkable career of a maverick researcher who grew bitter after his Japanese employer reaped millions in revenues from his inventions but gave him only a $200 bonus for his pioneering work.

He eventually left for a teaching job in California and litigation followed. His former employer accused him of betraying trade secrets, he countersued for a share of profits.

"I want to achieve the American dream," he said at the time in an interview with Scientific American. "That's why I came here. I couldn't achieve the American dream in Japan."

Tuesday's Nobel accolade recognized the work of Prof. Nakamura and two other scientists, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, in developing the blue light emitting diode.

Versatile, durable and requiring much less energy, LEDs are expected to replace incandescent lightbulbs eventually and save billions of dollars in electrical costs.

LEDs have existed for decades but only in red and green hues. For more than a quarter of a century, researchers struggled to develop a blue-light LED, which could be converted into an effective lighting device.

Working at Nagoya University, Prof. Akasaki and Prof. Amano made in the 1980s the first breakthroughs in processing gallium nitride, a semiconductor now widely used in blue light-emitting diodes.

But it was Prof. Nakamura who gained a better understanding of how gallium nitride behaved and eventually devised simpler, more reliable ways to manufacture blue LEDs.

The announcement of his discovery, in 1993, astounded observers. "These are stunning developments on the forefront of applied physics," a Science magazine article said.

The article added: "How did a single researcher, until recently without a PhD degree or publications, win this race, and how is he still leading the field against competing multinationals with larger resources?"

Prof. Nakamura was very much the lone R&D man for Nichia Corporation, a small firm in Tokushima, a medium-sized city in the mostly rural island of Shikoku, 500 kilometres west of Tokyo.

In a 2000 interview with Scientific American, he said he grew up on Shikoku and attended the local university, earning a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1979.

He started the same year at Nichia, a chemical company that sold the phosphor coating inside fluorescent lamps.

There were only 200 employees, he was the only electrical engineer and his research department consisted of three people.

He told Scientific American that Nichia was so poorly equipped that he had to assemble much of the hardware himself, including a furnace that frequently spewed smoke out of his office.

His initial work yielded little revenues and "gradually my company became mad at me."

He was also getting frustrated and threatened to resign unless he was granted a sabbatical to the University of Florida to study semiconductor technologies. In Florida, he discovered that he was not treated as a researcher but as an engineer because he did not have a doctorate and had not published papers.

Back in Japan, he continued his research and became a prolific author of papers and patent applications. The work earned him a doctorate degree, but his employer complained that he was publishing without approval and revealing company projects.

And while he became celebrated as one of Japan's great innovators, he remained a salaryman. His wages had been upped to $140,000 (U.S.), but he felt stifled and realized that he could earn more in the United States.

He resigned from Nichia in December, 1999, and, in a well-publicized coup, was hired as a professor by the University of California at Santa Barbara. He also became a consultant for a a subsidiary of Nichia's main competitor in the lighting business, Cree Inc.

Within months, Nichia and Cree were in a court dispute over patents, with Nichia accusing Prof. Nakamura of violating the terms of his employment contract.

Nichia alleged in court filings that when he was hired in 1979, Prof. Nakamura had signed a pledge "to keep all secrets and to not disclose any information content I see, hear, or learn regarding Nichia."

The dispute snowballed in a five-year judicial war on two continents as lawyers in California, North Carolina, Virginia and Tokyo made claims and counterclaims, volleying thousands of pages of documents at each other.

"The court was troubled to observe repeated instances of discourtesy, disrespect, petty name-calling, bickering, gratuitous accusations," a judge in the North Carolina case admonished at one point.

In 2004, a Tokyo district court ruled in favour of Prof. Nakamura and ordered Nichia to pay him the equivalent of $190-million (U.S.).

The following year, however, an appellate court reduced the amount to about $8.1-million.

Prof. Nakamura told the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper of his disappointment. "The settlement tells me that, in Japan, the corporate managers are still the masters and the workers remain the slaves," he said.

He is now entitled to more than $400,000, his share of the eight million Swedish kronor Nobel prize money.