Nick Holonyak Jr. a Bright Light Remembered
Nick Holonyak Jr.
The year was 1962, and the “IT” that worked was the world’s first practical visible-spectrum light-emitting diode. By itself, that LED would have placed Holonyak among the giants of 20th-century engineering—but he was only getting started.
By the time he passed away at 93 on September 18, 2022, the “Father of the LED” had accumulated an astounding series of world-changing technical achievements related to light-emitting devices. His decades of dedicated mentorship also left behind a rich human legacy, as his students went on to great things of their own.
Nikola Holonyak, Jr. was born on November 3, 1928 in tiny Zeigler, Illinois, set among the coal fields of southern Illinois. His coal-miner father and illiterate mother, neither of whom had attended a day of school, were both immigrants from a region of the Carpathian Mountains that today is in Ukraine. The family was so poor that his father hesitated to have children, out of fear that he would be unable to feed them.
It was a world away from the glittering award banquets that awaited Nick Holonyak, but even as a small boy, he had an intense interest in electrical things. He spent long hours “fooling around,” as he later put it, with everything from homemade crystal sets to the fascinating spark coils in his godfather’s Model T.
At the time, though, he never thought of pursuing science or engineering as a career.
“If you come from a household where there are educated people, maybe you know [about] that, but that wasn’t true in my case,” he later said.
THE TIDE TURNS
Holonyak was in high school when World War II ended. The University of Illinois was so overwhelmed by returning soldiers that it opened extension campuses, including one in Granite City, Illinois. Holonyak started college there before transferring to the Urbana-Champaign campus, where he eventually earned a B.S. (1950), M.S. (1951), and Ph.D. (1954) in Electrical Engineering.
Fatefully, in 1951 he signed up for a class taught by two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, inventor of the transistor. Holonyak saw a transistor for the first time in that class, and was captivated by Bardeen’s work. Ignoring fellow students’ insistence that semiconductors were a passing fad to be avoided, he abandoned his research on vacuum tubes and became the first Ph.D. student in Bardeen’s semiconductor lab.
One might expect someone with Nick Holonyak’s achievements to start feeling, at some point, like he’s left his predecessors in the dust. But even up to the final months of Holonyak’s long life, Rashid Bashir, Dean of Grainger Engineering, can’t recall ever having a conversation with him in which Holonyak didn’t mention Bardeen.
“Whenever I would talk to him about his own work, Nick’s own impact, he would kind of turn it around and talk about John Bardeen’s,” said Bashir. Holonyak’s lifelong “gratitude and admiration” for Bardeen as a friend, mentor, and colleague were clear.
AN ASTONISHING LEGACY
OF TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT
After completing his Ph.D., Holonyak worked briefly at Bell Labs and then served for two years in the U.S. Army. In 1957 he accepted an offer to work on semiconductor research at General Electric. But at Bardeen’s request, Holonyak returned to UIUC in 1963 to join the ECE faculty, where he remained for 50 years until his 2013 retirement.
One of Holonyak’s extraordinary qualities was his ability to achieve fundamental breakthroughs not just once or twice, but again and again across a long career. He started to demonstrate this ability straight out of college: at Bell Labs, he made critical contributions to silicon controlled rectifiers (SCR), which today are pervasive in power electronics.
Then, at GE, he created the red-light LED for which he’s most famous. To do so, he had to figure out how to make a GaAsP alloy that allowed semiconductors to emit visible light. It was worth his trouble: since LED bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and are well on their way towards replacing incandescent bulbs, Holonyak’s invention has enabled a gigantic reduction in humans’ environmental impact.
He used the same GaAsP alloy to create the world’s first visible-spectrum semiconductor laser, and his was one of four groups to demonstrate semiconductor lasers in general. They have found use in CD players and high-frequency circuits, among other applications.
In the 1970s, he and his student Edward Rezek created the first quantum-well laser, which used extremely thin layers of alloy to produce quantum-sized effects. The approach dramatically improved the efficiency of semiconductor lasers; today, most semiconductor lasers are quantum-well lasers.
In the 1980s, with student Wyn Laidig, he introduced impurity-induced layer disordering, in which layers are intermixed in an alloy semiconductor stack to improve reliability by preventing lasers from breaking apart. It became important in applications, like underwater telecommunications, for which long-term reliability is critical.
In 1990, with another student—John Dallesasse, today on UIUC’s faculty—he made a crucial breakthrough in III-V oxidation that made it possible to confine current and optical signals within an aperture.
As Dallesasse recently explained, that breakthrough enabled the creation of high-performance vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSEL), whose impact has been enormous. “Enterprise networks, by and large, have VCSELs in them. Every data center has optical links that are VCSEL-based,” said Dallesasse. “The VCSEL is also used in facial recognition in cell phones; when I use my iPhone, it’s a VCSEL array that projects the dot matrix that does the 3D mapping. So III-V oxidation has had a massive impact on things that affect people every day.”
One of Holonyak’s last major inventions was the transistor laser, created with UIUC professor Milton Feng in the early 2000s. It combines electrical and photonic functionality in an intriguing way that is believed to have great potential for future impact.
A COMPELLING MENTOR AND VALUED COLLEAGUE
Holonyak is remembered warmly by his academic progeny, who recall with gratitude his fierce determination to push each student to be his or her best.
His success as a mentor is evidenced by the distinguished careers that many of his 60 Ph.D. graduates—such as UIUC professors Greg Stillman and John Dallesasse—have built in industry and academia. To date, a remarkable 10 of the 60 have become members of the National Academy of Engineering.
Milton Feng, who collaborated with Holonyak for over 35 years, recently described how Holonyak’s tenacious interpersonal style played a key role in one of their greatest achievements.
In 2003, during one of the coffee gatherings Holonyak held each morning in his office, he and Feng were discussing a transistor that Feng’s group had just created. Holonyak was puzzled that it didn’t generate more heat. With a leap of insight, he asked, “Did you see any light come out of your THz transistor?”
Feng admitted that at first, “I ignored his question, as a transistor expert! We only worry about the electrical signal in and out of a transistor... We do not worry about [whether] light comes out of the transistor.”
But Holonyak was relentless. “He insisted to ask me the same question each day during coffee break for about a month,” recalled Feng. “I figured Nick must know something important, and after [I] found a proper infrared detector, we found light output from the transistor with a modulated signal.”
By the following year, Feng and Holonyak had successfully used that transistor as the basis for the transistor laser.
HONORS, AND THE ONE THAT
(INFAMOUSLY) GOT AWAY
Holonyak won a dazzling list of many of the world’s most prestigious prizes. He received the National Medal of Science from George H. W. Bush (1990), the Japan Prize from Emperor Akihito (1995), the National Medal of Technology from George W. Bush (2002), and the Global Energy Prize from Vladimir Putin (2003). Some of his other honors include the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1993), the IEEE Medal of Honor (2003), the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize (2014), the Draper Prize (2015), and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2021).
In 2002, the Nick Holonyak, Jr., Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering (currently held by Feng) was established at UIUC, and in 2019, UIUC’s Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory was renamed the Nick Holonyak, Jr. Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. In 2021, the IEEE established the IEEE Nick Holonyak, Jr. Medal for Semiconductor Optoelectronic Technologies.
Despite Holonyak’s numerous accolades, many people can’t help but focus, indignantly, on the biggest honor he never won: the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Eyebrows were raised back in 2000, when two of his collaborators won it for semiconductor laser work, even though, according to his former student Russell D. Dupuis, “the fundamental material contributions were made by Holonyak.”
It was an even greater shock when the Nobel Prize committee decided, in 2014, to honor LED innovation, but excluded the “Father of the LED” in favor of researchers who did blue-light LED work in the 1990s. “A travesty of justice” and “very puzzling and very disappointing” were among the printable reactions.
John Dallesasse recently reflected on Holonyak’s legacy, and the far-reaching impact of his work on lighting, communication, and high-power lasers.
He said that Holonyak’s impact will resonate into the future because of the younger people who became creative leaders under his influence.
“The human impact of Nick on the people who he helped to mentor and teach is something that I personally have a great deal of gratitude to him for,” added Dallesasse. “And he’s going to be missed.”