Electronic Design
Nick Holonyak Jr.: 81 Years Old And Still Doing Groundbreaking Research

Nick Holonyak Jr.: 81 Years Old And Still Doing Groundbreaking Research

Holonyak (2009)

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything bigger or better than what we’re working on now.”

Those are the words of Nick Holonyak Jr., inventor of the first practical LED, the first visible semiconductor laser, and the first electronics to use III-V compound semiconductor alloys. He was part of the Bell Labs J.L. Moll group, which made the first diffused silicon transistors and switches as well as the first metallized silicon. He also was a leader in the early semiconductor technology that led to Silicon Valley.

Thanks to Holonyak and others, we have a practical laser for medical and surgical use, for ophthalmology, for compact disc players, and for all our ever-growing fiber-optic communication needs. He’s responsible for all those first flashing LEDs in games, medical equipment, cars, traffic signals, and household products. He also invented the household light-dimmer switches we enjoy setting for just the right mood.

Those LEDs, now the work of many others, are eyed for their “green” attributes and potential today. They produce more lumens per watt than both incandescent and halogen lighting sources. LEDs last an average of 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs, making them very cost-effective.

So what, at 81, could he possibly be working on that’s more exciting? He is studying transistor lasers to improve the speed of electronic communications. As the John Bardeen Endowed Chair Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is investigating methods for re-inventing quantum-well lasers in more sophisticated forms.

“The transistor is capable of being reinvented into a device that handles optical and electrical signals,” said Holonyak. “Lasers were previously just electrical diodes, but now also transistors (triodes). The transistor now generates an electrical and optical (photon) signal, which has less energy loss in many applications. What we’re working on is a new generation of chips for 10 to 30 years down the line.”

The research is under way at a research center supported in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was instrumental in the creation of the Internet. Holonyak and Milton Feng want to develop light-emitting transistors integrated onto a single chip. That could lead to the creation of optical computers running up to 10 or 100 or more times faster than today’s computers.

Holonyak was born November 3, 1928, in Zeigler, Ill., the son of a coal miner from the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine. He often worked with his dad repairing a Model T Ford, using only his own creativity to keep it running. Those experiences ignited his fascination with electricity and electrical light. He also credits his early teachers for giving him the strong foundation needed for later schooling.

“My elementary school teachers in those Illinois coal fields hammered in the value of reading, writing, and arithmetic. If you can do those subjects, you have a good start,” he said.

The backbreaking work of his father digging coal and then his own backbreaking work as a youth on the Illinois Central (IC) Railroad showed Holonyak he wanted a less physical career. But if needed, he would do physical labor. He worked on the railroad rather than ask his dad for money for college. When World War II came, he lied about his age and worked at 15 on the IC railroad. He later received a draft card.

“But the war ended, and even though the school (University of Illinois) was crowded, I got in,” Holonyak said. “I didn’t know what a big school could do in terms of opening opportunities. I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I got my BS degree in 1950 and then saw more opportunities, so I stayed in grad school.”

Holonyak got his MS in 1951 and went on for his doctorate.

“Then came Dr. John Bardeen,” inventor of the transistor, said Holonyak. “He was way above everyone else. He was the only physicist to get two Nobel Prizes in physics.”

Holonyak had been working on microwave tubes until he got attracted to the semiconductors and transistors that Bardeen was researching.

“I’m probably the only one, or one of the few, that stuck his neck out and left the sophisticated vacuum tube to work on the primitive transistor,” said Holonyak. “Because I was already a grad student in electronics, familiar with vacuum tubes and working on microwave problems, I fit into Bardeen’s lab quickly. I quickly started learning about semiconductors.”

After graduating in 1954 with his PhD in electrical engineering, Holonyak, like many other inventors, went to work at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

“I’m one of the builders of silicon chips in John Moll’s group at Bell Labs,” said Holonyak. In Moll’s group, he switched from germanium PhD research to silicon. The group made the first diffused silicon transistors and switches. He was part of the team whose original work led to vital elements in the later invention of the integrated circuit.

Holonyak kept “getting deeper into semiconductor research” until he went into the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1955 to 1957. After the Army tour, instead of returning to Bell Labs, Holonyak joined General Electric in 1957 in Syracuse and at first worked once again with silicon.

“I quickly made first some silicon p-n-p-n switches (thyristors, etc.) and then tunnel diodes, but they were too limited in performance,” Holonyak said. “Then I looked at other materials. I worked with gallium arsenide, which is used in cell-phone transistors today. But, it still didn’t have the properties I wanted (for visible light). We were building diodes, transistors, etc. I was interested in diodes at first that emitted red light. We speculated in 1962 we could make lasers.”

When Ted Maiman invented the ruby laser in 1960, Holonyak knew his research was on the right track.

“Ted was the first guy to see red light, a ruby laser, that was coherent. Before, lumps of incoherent light were scattered all over the place. Humans had not seen coherent visible light. What Ted’s laser message to me was that visible light could be coherent. My thought was, ‘I don’t want infrared light, I want visible light. I want light that is seeable, but I want to make coherent visible light with a diode—not a ruby rod,’” Holonyak said.

“I had already worked with gallium arsenide. I was convinced that I could make a mixture of gallium arsenide with gallium phosphide, an alloy. You couldn’t buy this stuff then. You had to know how to make it. I had the background, so I thought I could make it,” he said.

“My bosses and I argued over it. GE wanted to make money in the transistor business. They had a big electronics operation. So, the semiconductor department manager I reported to was irritated. He said I was wasting my time on III-V semiconductor materials. They threatened to fire me because I was not working on silicon,” he said.

“I figured, ‘Go to Hell.’ I had Air Force support. They were much more encouraging than my GE boss. I was going to make crystals, alloy III-V crystals, because then you can see the light emission (red) and the laser light, if indeed you can make a diode laser,” said Holonyak. “I succeeded in making the first visiblespectrum red gallium-arsenide-phosphide laser.”

Holonyak then had the proof that the right way to make LEDs and lasers (“ultimate lamps”) is with a semiconductor alloy.

“That was the beginning. That was how it all started,” he said.

“I had six good years at General Electric and then accepted John Bardeen’s invitation in 1963 to return to the University of Illinois,” said Holonyak.

“They were getting mushy at GE,” said Holonyak. He remains researching at the University of Illinois to this day. “I saw silicon semiconductors before Intel, before Gordon Moore, but after getting into this (lasers and LEDs) I never left it. I’ve spent 47 years now researching all sorts of laser problems.”

Holonyak wasn’t interested in starting a business to profit from his research. “I was not an entrepreneur focused on making money. Why start a company? Other people do that,” he said.

“Once Bob Noyce (cofounder of Intel) and I argued about that. He said I was a fool for working on this (the III-V semiconductors). We were both learning the possibilities in the semiconductor field. He went off and got wealthy. I went off and made the semiconductor laser that makes possible longhaul fiber-optic communications. We were both right,” Holonyak said. “You do the best you can do, and hopefully it will lead to something.”

Today, Holonyak doesn’t give himself much time to relax. Once his daily lab work is finished, it’s time for routine errands and back to home. His wife drops him off at the research center in the morning and picks him up mid-afternoon.

“We run errands or go to medical appointments. Some physical pains haunt me, but mentally, at 81, I’m still okay. I go to the gym and exercise. I’ll never catch up with all I want to read. I enjoy reading Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with a sharp tongue. Every day there’s The New York Times to read, a few more things to look at. I’m just busy reading and writing and working,” he said.

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