Excerpt from Brilliant! Shuji Nakamura and the Revolution in Lighting Technology, by Bob Johnstone

 Bob Johnstone
In March 1988, three months after getting the green light [from Nichia Chemical] to go ahead with his plan, Shuji was on a Delta Airways jet flying from Tokyo via Atlanta to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, the fourth largest school in the US. It was the first time the country boy had ever boarded an airplane. Like many first-time flyers, Shuji fretted that the plane might fall from the sky. It was also the first time he had been abroad. Assuming he did manage to arrive alive, he was worried that his rudimentary and thus-far-untested high-school English would enable him to communicate with Americans.
As it happened, language would not be Nakamura’s main problem in the US. Most of his fellow students in Ramu Ramaswamy’s laboratory were also from Asia, mainly Korea and Taiwan. English was not their first language, either. Shuji was astonished by the ethnic diversity of the student body at Gainesville. Which country does this university belong to? he wondered. In later life, Nakamura would marvel at the generosity of Americans in inviting knowledge-seekers from all over the world to come study on their campuses. Such openness compared favorably, he felt, with the closedness of their Japanese counterparts.
In 1988 Shuji turned 34, rather long in the tooth for a student. His fellow researchers were mostly in their mid twenties. All of them had doctors degrees. A common failing among academics, especially young academics, is that they tend to be overly status conscious. A person with a PhD will typically let you know that he has a PhD within moments of your first meeting. This failing is particularly pronounced among Asian academics, whose hierarchical cultures produce an exceptional degree of status consciousness.

Shuji’s status at Gainesville was ambiguous. He was coming to the university at the behest of Sakai, a visiting professor. Since his time was limited to one year and he was not studying for a degree, he was obviously not a student. Nor, since he did not have a PhD, could he be offered a post-doctoral fellowship. As a compromise, he was designated a “guest research associate”. Nakamura arrived in Florida something of a mystery man. Nothing was known about him other than what he had written about his previous work experience and his proposed research theme. This of course did not include any mention of bright blue LEDs. Formally, he was there to do research on infrared LEDs made of gallium arsenide. Nichia’s real intentions in sending him to the US would remain a closely-guarded secret.

Initially, his colleagues treated Shuji as an equal or even, because he was older, as a senior. However, once they discovered that he only had a masters degree to his name and, worse, that he had not published a single paper, their attitude towards him changed completely. Henceforth they looked down on Nakamura, treating him as little more than a lab technician. Nakamura felt humiliated. It was particularly galling because, seen from his perspective, these puffed-up PhDs were mere novices. He had years of hands-on experience under his belt. They could not do the simplest experiment without making a fuss. Something would go wrong and they would come crying to him for help. He would show them what to do. But that did not make the brats any less snooty in their attitude towards him.

For Shuji, Fridays were sheer torture. On that day, Ramaswamy held discussion sessions that lasted from eight o’clock in the morning sometimes until quite late in the evening. “We’d talk about the research papers they were writing,” Ramaswamy recalled, “with every student going to the board and discussing their concepts, their problems, how things could be modified, and this and that. I got the feeling that Nakamura was intimidated, because he hadn’t published anything, didn’t have a PhD. I used to look at his face and he would not be very happy, he would look very perturbed. He didn’t have the confidence, he wouldn’t ask any questions, he was very shy and [perhaps because of the language issue] he spoke very little.”

Nakamura was by nature a diligent worker. The guilt he felt about his failure to develop a commercially successful product combined with his anger at the way Nichia had treated him served to motivate him further. He had always hated to lose. Now, the arrogance of these greenhorn academics poured fuel on the competitive fires that burned within him.

“I do not like to be defeated”, he wrote, “I feel resentful when people look down on me. At that time, I developed more fighting spirit — I would not allow myself to be beaten by such low-level people.”

In a word Nakamura was, as Ramaswamy put it, driven.

“He was a bulldog worker, he would work around the clock. I used to come back to the lab late at night, sometimes I’d stay until ten, then I’d go home and I’d forget something. I’d get in my car and drive back to the lab and I’d see him working at two o’clock. Next day I’d come back at five or six in the morning, and he’d be still there! I’d say to him, Don’t you go home and sleep? And he’d say Well, I was in the middle of this, so I thought I’d finish it. I think maybe he felt somewhat insecure, because he was so motivated, and so driven.”

Outside of his work at the laboratory, not much distracted Shuji during his time in Florida. Gainesville was not much to his liking. “The end of the South”, as the town is sometimes known, the birthplace of the sports drink Gatorade was, as Nakamura saw it,“surrounded by a swamp full of alligators and mosquitoes, a place where African-Americans were still discriminated against.”

He lived in $300-a-week student accommodation, eating out most nights at a cheap Chinese restaurant nearby. His only friend was a Japanese professor who lived in the neighborhood. The kindly professor would invite his fellow-countryman to go fishing with him, then back to his apartment for dinner where he would cook what they had caught. On this first long absence, Shuji was naturally homesick for his family and his native land. During the summer holidays Hiroko and the girls came to visit him. He treated them to a trip to Disney World in nearby Orlando. In his year in the US, it was the only time he took off.

In addition to wrestling with his inner demons, there was also a pressing practical reason why Shuji worked so relentlessly. He had come to Gainesville to learn how to do MOCVD. When he arrived, however, he had been shocked to discover that getting time to experiment on the university’s two existing MOCVD systems was not going to be easy.

State-of-the-art equipment is always fully booked. Inevitably, the lion’s share of access time goes to the most powerful. “Professors are like ... How shall I put it? Wild animals roaming the mountains,” Ramaswamy said. “You can’t get them in a corral and make them go round and round.” Others saw the situation more prosaically. A turf war had been waged at the university over control of the systems, and it seemed like the gentle Ramaswamy had lost out.

Not surprisingly, Ramaswamy wanted a machine of his own for his lab. Commercial MOCVD equipment did not quite suit his purposes, so he had brought in Sakai to custom-design a system for him. By the time Nakamura got there, the parts had arrived, but they had yet to be assembled. Shuji realized that if he was ever going to have a chance of using this machine, then he would have to help Sakai build it. He had to spend ten months of his precious year in the US with his sleeves rolled up, connecting pipes and welding quartz, just like back at Nichia. He threw himself into the task, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Here again, as with Shuji’s long and apparently fruitless apprenticeship learning the basics of LED growth, adversity in the short term would turn out in the long term to be priceless training for his quest to develop the world’s first bright blue LEDs. He was willy-nilly gaining an intimate familiarity with the inner workings of MOCVD equipment that few could match.

At last, having managed to assemble the equipment, Nakamura was not about to waste what little time in the US he had left. He wanted exclusive use of the machine that he had done so much to assemble. This led to clashes with the other students. Ramaswamy was forced to intervene to settle the issue. In the end, Nakamura was only able to do about ten device-growing runs on the system. Driven as never before, he was frantically busy right up until the last moment. Then it was time to go home.

Conclusion: Reprinted with permission from the author, pages 77-80.
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Domain: Electronics
Category: Semiconductors
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Bob Johnstone
21 March, 2007
Bob Johnstone
21 March, 2007
Bob Johnstone
19 March, 2007