Roll over, Thomas Edison

The era of the incandescent light bulb is over, and for that, the planet should be very grateful to Shuji Nakamura.

Published April 24, 2007 10:55PM (EDT)

Nobody, I mean nobody, writes more lovingly or cleverly about gallium nitride semiconductor technology than Bob Johnstone. The longtime technology reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Wired, Forbes and numerous other publications has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of abstruse material science that is unmatched in the popular science press. You don't even have to understand every word he says to appreciate him; a sentence like, "For a crystal lattice, giving birth to a photon is a stressful event," stands on its own, irrespective of comprehension.

Johnstone also has a passion for exposing to the West the accomplishments of Japanese engineers. His first book, "We Were Burning: Japanese Engineers and the Forging of the Electronic Age," brought to life the stories of the individuals who made possible Japan's stunning rise to consumer electronic prominence in the 20th century. His newest book, "Brilliant: Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology," focuses the narrative on the man most responsible for the explosion in LED lighting that is currently sweeping the globe.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Shuji Nakamura, working mostly on his own, and often in direct contravention to the orders of his corporate bosses, pumped out a remarkable stream of inventions relating to light-emitting diode technology. In doing so, he signed the death warrant not just of Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulbs, but also of the compact fluorescents that are struggling to win the hearts of consumers right now.

A world lit by LEDs is a world where light is more configurable to our desires than ever before, while consuming far less electricity for far less cost. It's a world where technology embraces the environment, rather than despoils it. No wonder, when asked by Johnstone what triumph gave him the most personal satisfaction, Nakamura responded, "Helping to prevent the effects of global warming and helping the people of third-world countries by giving them a safe lighting system."

There are at least a handful of subnarratives woven into Johnstone's biography of Nakamura: the differing approaches of Japan and the U.S. to fostering technological innovation; the aggressive start-ups that are commercializing new LED breakthroughs; the role that government action can have in promoting the applications of new technology, particularly in California and China; along with a hefty dose of arcane semiconductor jargon that will sometimes leave the average layperson reader gasping for breath. But here's my favorite bottom line:

The environmental impact of the solid-state revolution in lighting will be enormous. Look at a map of the world based on satellite photographs taken at night and you will see that light emissions from the United States, in particular the east coast of the country, are far higher than from anywhere else. Most of this light is still produced by antiquated Edison-style incandescents. If every American household were to install energy-efficient lights in five of their most frequently-used fixtures -- the kitchen ceiling light, living room table and floor lamps, bathroom vanity, and outdoor porch lamp -- the resultant drop in energy consumption would keep more than one trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. That is equivalent to eliminating the pollution caused by more than eight million cars for an entire year, a $6 billion dollar savings for householders equivalent to the annual output of more than twenty power stations.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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