Shuji Nakamura. The best is yet to come in the universe of LEDs

Shuji Nakamura, premio Nobel per la Fisica, è stato a Como in occasione del Festival della Luce. L’inventore dei Led ha svelato a LifeGate come sarà la luce e l’energia del futuro.

Shuji Nakamura, along with Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, invented blue LEDs (blue light-emitting diodes) in 1993 and, 21 years later, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. That discovery turned out to be a brilliant success, as LEDs are able to increase energy efficiency and contribute to cutting CO2, which is responsible for climate change. Nakamura attended the inauguration of the Festival della Luce on the 5th of May in Como, Italy. In this interview, he talks about how his products became well-known all over the world and how he reckons the energy and lighting industry will develop.


Il premio Nobel Shuji Nakamura a Como per il Festival della Luce
Nobel Prize for Physics Shuji Nakamura in Como, Italy, at Festival della Luce


Let’s begin with the award you received two years ago for having invented LEDs. What did you experience when you found out you had become a Nobel Prize winner?

I invented LEDs in 1993. After that, Japanese mass media would come to my house one day before the Nobel Prize announcement, every year since 1993. Mass media was long expecting it. So I wasn’t surprised. However, nothing happened for twenty years and I started to think I wouldn’t win. In the end, I wasn’t so sure it would happen.


It has taken over twenty years for LEDs to become of common use, and they’re still not sufficiently widespread. Given the temporal gap between science and consumption, what is research in the lighting sector focused on today and that will probably become the standard in 20 years?

I think LEDs caught on slowly globally because of the colour of the light, which was initially cold white. And European people were used to warm white, so nobody liked it. But now LEDs use warm light as well and they’ve become popular and widespread all over the world. I think that they’ll remain the most efficient lighting system in the next twenty years. LEDs and conventional incandescent light bulbs are quite the same, but LEDs’ consumption is a tenth. Moreover, LEDs can last up to fifteen years and help save materials and resources. In general terms, I expect laser lighting to be the form of lighting of the future, but it is still at an early stage and I think it’ll be launched on the market as late as ten years from now.


Energy efficiency and renewable energy go hand in hand. Often when a house is transformed into a passive one, the lighting system is changed and solar panels are installed. What type of energy will emancipate us from fossil fuels, definitively?

I think hydrogen. Solar, wind and biomass energy are great technologies but have a big problem: there’s no way of storing energy. Well, there is, but only in the short run. Their limit is that when you generate energy you have to spend that energy. Instead, the energy produced with hydrogen can be stored, like gas, for longer periods of time. Hydrogen has a huge potential as an energy resource.


Shuji Nakamura al Festival della Luce, il 5 maggio a Como
Shuji Nakamura at Festival della Luce, Como, Italy, 5 May


Is hydrogen already common in Japan?

Car manufacturers like Toyota have launched new hydrogen-powered vehicles. Moreover, hydrogen is used in houses, but it’s expensive, thus not so popular.


What role do LEDs play in bettering the living conditions of the 1.5 billion people who still don’t have constant access to electricity?

The regions that have no access to electricity usually use oil lamps. The problem is that those lamps depend on kerosene, and oil is very expensive for developing countries. Each lamp needs to be recharged with oil and costs about 150 dollars per year. But now, there’s a new opportunity: LED lamps. These use batteries charged by solar cells during the daytime. This system is affordable and clean. A LED lamp costs about ten dollars and lasts three years, meaning it costs three dollars a year. If it lasts more, it would be almost free as the cost would be negligible.


What stage has their dissemination in industrialised nations reached, instead?

These countries are switching, gradually, to LEDs. In the United States their dissemination is around 5-10 per cent, while Japan exceeds 50 per cent. In Japan, it is due to the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, which led the government to shut down all nuclear plants. The country went through an energy crisis. We hardly had energy. So the Japanese government encouraged the population to use more efficient lighting systems. Nowadays, many governments are educating the general public on using LEDs, as people often make their choices according to affordability. Conventional incandescent light bulbs are cheaper, but they last less. On the contrary, LEDs may have a higher initial cost, but they’re more worthwhile in the long period. It’s a payback system.

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