Brilliant! [Book Review]

Yes!

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In the realm of available books to read, the selection of those involving an inventor’s contribution towards a technological breakthrough for the benefit of society are slim. And even most of these are written by the inventors themselves, which tend to be smeared with a level of “smugness.” It’s almost like it’s the frosting on the celebrity cake that they have created for the fruits of their labor.

I swear, the main job of celebrities is to make sure that no one forgets that they exist….. books, shows, charities. (“philanthropists”…….I’m pretty sure most people with a multi-million dollar income would donate that level of income to those in need. What else would you do with it?)

The story of this book as portrayed by Bob Johnstone, the author, is slightly different. While Shuji Nakamura (the inventor of the bright blue LED) takes the center stage in this novel, this book is written as a story on both the technological reasoning behind the inventor, the political friction that evolved from these advances, and the opportunities that have arisen thanks to the various players in the new market.

Brilliant! is the story on the creation and adaption of the efficient and commercially viable blue LED. While blue LEDs have been made in the past, the efficiency was worse than the energy guzzling incandescent bulbs based from Edison’s original invention. These previous Silicon Carbide blue LEDs were mostly used to make small icons glow in various electronic devices, which isn’t that exciting. And we’ve had red LEDs for quite a while, which had a similar impact.

Another significant factor: the shorter the wavelength (blue or purple …. for those non physicists out there), the more useful the color typically is for extended applicatinos. It’s a lot easier (and efficient) to lengthen light (from blue to red) than it is to shorten it (from red to blue).

With the realization of blue LEDs, one can use part of the blue output to create other colors, including green, yellow, and (most importantly) white.

Blue + Yellow = White

White LEDs: the new source of interior illumination (Alliterations are awesome!).

Note: Yes, you can just create an LED that either creates green or yellow light. However, there are characteristics that blue LEDs plus a converting material have over a standard LED. For example, there’s no real magical formula to create a cheap, efficient green LED; efficiency peaks at blue and red for InGaN and InGaAlP respectively, the two chemical compounds currently used for commercial LEDs. InGaAlP LEDs used for red and yellow LEDs are also more sensitive to heat than blue InGaN LEDs, which makes them less practical for high power or extreme environmental applications (bright lights in broad daylight : the best of both worlds).

This literature starts its first quarter out as a biography of Shuji and his early career at Nichia Corporation. Not wanting to leave his comfortable rural area in Japan, he gets employed straight out of college at the local phosphor company. With a strive to make something successful for the company, he ruthlessly purses R&D in various projects with not much to show from it. While initial successes were always too late to market for any significant success, strongly due the small R&D headcount of ~1 in his field, he becomes desperate. Going against management internal politics, and gambles in the development of InGaN LEDs, which seemed impractical at the time.

[I’m still hoping that room temperature superconductors become a reality in my time…..]

During that time, there was a LOT of interest in creating blue LEDs, and there were two compounds with the “energy potential” to emit blue light efficiently: InGaN and ZnSe. And due to significantly high levels of failures from large-firm companies, only a few people still stuck with InGaN technology until Shuji’s development of the ideal recipe. However, when reality hit the fan, that’s where things got complicated.

The second section talks about some of the major shifts in lighting trends. Portable, efficient lights for third world countries become a beneficial alternative to burning flammable kerosene that produced hazardous fumes inside living quarters. LED lights made post-sunset activities more efficient and safe for those in remote locations. The realization of isolated safety and warning lights for remote locations became a realizable market, which included off-shore and sunlight-rechargeable applications. The evolution of lighting as a architectural aspect and main theme also allowed more control in directional lighting and color-controllable aspects thanks to RGB LEDs (Red, Green, and Blue LED inside a single device).

Similar manufacturing methods can also be utilized in the creation of UV LEDs. This market is filled with a plethora of different applications, from curing polymer materials in manufacturing to disinfecting water and public areas (including the bathroom). Previous sources of UV sources came from high-voltage Mercury vapor bulbs, a hazardous material, which emits a broad spectrum of wavelengths. UV LEDs have a fine, tunable output spectrum of energy which allows for more control in commercial and industrial applications.

However, this story is not all unicorns and rainbows. After making Nichia THE TOP manufacturer of LEDs in the world , Nichia…….basically treated Shuji like shit. No major pay raises were given to the inventor. In addition, they sideline him to a paperwork-pushing job out of pure spite by the head management and the CEO himself.  This “assumed sacrifice” that seems well-acknowledged in Japanese culture degraded Shuji to the point where he did something that’s frowned upon in his home country; he left his first company. He took an offer to work as a researcher associate in Santa Barbara.

He turned down a $500,000 salary from CREE during the process.

Of course, he did this to try and escape possible patent infringement that could arise from working with a competitor in the LED manufacturing market. However, Nichia still decides to sue this purely academic being on fraudulent claims of “leaking company secrets to its competitors.” This was also done in parallel with Nichia’s numerous lawsuits with its competitors to keep its choke-hold monopoly on the global production of InGaN LEDs. This latter half makes sense from Nichia’s standpoint with the goal to keep as much possible revenue within its country. The rural, formerly small-sized company has a strong desire to protect (most of) its employees with job security and a flourishing local economy.

But going after its former employee with massive lawsuits and filing their own fraudulent attempts to ruin Shuji’s reputation as the sole inventor of the blue LED…….Nichia even goes to the lengths of publishing and handing out free copies of their own book, “Blue Light Emitting Diode: Invented by Nichia Corporation and Its Young Engineers” (by anonymous authors….. of course). This book portrays a false tale of the company’s dedication of technological pursuit as a whole-company discovery and not a one-man army. Angered by the excess legal battles with Nichia, Shuji files his own counter lawsuit to reclaim some of the company’s profit gained based on his invention. This amount should have been around $190 million, but it was settled at ~$8 million (half of which went to cover Shuji’s legal bills, and the rest was definitely not worth the stress).

There is a fourth quarter of the book, but it’s more of a continuation of the second quarter in terms of emerging markets and lighting trends. I found myself skimming over this section due to the boring aspects of “famous people” finding more “novel business models.”

Despite the last quarter of the novel, I found the book a very entertaining read. It expressed a lot of the technical areas that both explained the complications realized during the history of the blue LED, but also the technical reasoning why specific methods or models were used. There is discussion on the “snow” that can occur in the semiconductor crystal growth chambers (MOCVD). The selection of growth processes and substrate issues involved in LED fabrication are also brought up. All of these technical topics are not expressed in academic detail but enough that even the uneducated reader can understand and comprehend.

I even learned a few new things, as some aspects in technology (such as selection of growth methods) are not easily found in textbooks or scholarly papers without a fight.

Oh yeah, the book also does have a few images showing various players in the book.

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