Bob Johnstone’s latest book, Brilliant! Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology is only partly about the former Nichia Chemical researcher who doggedly pursued development of the blue light-emitting diode.
To be sure, this biography, published next month by Prometheus Books, tells the reader about this hard-working Japanese man and his difficult research environment at Nichia Chemical.
To his credit, Johnstone takes Brilliant! on a wider arc to a series of mini-biographies, roughly 10-page stories of people involved in bringing LED lighting to the marketplace. These mini-bios include the founders of Cree Research in North Carolina, and several fascinating entrepreneurs who realized early on how LED lighting could sell in applications ranging from ocean buoys to high-end homes in California.
The mini-bio which grabbed me is a 12-page chapter about Dave Irvine-Halliday, a Scottish engineer with an early specialty in fiber optics and a passion for mountains. On a trip to Nepal, he visited a family at their mud-and-stone dwelling, but found it difficult to see his hosts as darkness settled in. Lacking electricity, they had no way to light their homes other than a wood-burning stove.
Much of the world’s population lives off of the electrical grid, with families spending a significant fraction of their incomes on kerosene for lamps to give children a precious chance to read after sundown. These kerosene lamps pollute the indoor air, and have a nasty habit of tipping over, soaking clothing and leaving horrible burn scars on the survivors.
It is not a small problem. In Sri Lanka, for example, 40 percent of burns are caused by the accidental breakage of kerosene bottle lamps. Worldwide, burns account for fully one-third of hospital admissions, causing 3.5 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
Irvine-Halliday, a professor at the University of Calgary, did something about it. Because LEDs draw little power, they are easily powered by solar panels. He designed an LED light. He formed a tiny two-person foundation, Light Up the World, which works with local businessmen who produce LED lamps locally, but with components purchased at high-volume prices. A typical Light Up the World system includes LEDs, a battery, and the most expensive component: a 5-Watt solar panel. Though the $100 cost is too high for most poor families, the foundation has developed micro-credit financing options which bring the durable LED lamps within the range of many in the developing world. And because these families would spend about $60 a year on kerosene, the more-efficient LED lamps pay off in the long run.
Brilliant!’s story of Nakamura and the blue LED thus takes the reader to a wide net of LED pioneers, and to a truly important debate over the proposition that solid-state lighting is likely to replace the relatively wasteful incandescent and fluorescent forms of lighting.
Its about engineers with fire and compassion and vision and courage.
P.S. Johnstone has posted two excerpts from Brilliant! in the paper section of WeSRCH.com. Also, he has initiated a Community on WeSRCH to discuss LED lighting with interested readers. The 336-page book is available for less than $20 at Amazon.com.