This year, the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded for an invention—as opposed to a discovery—that has a concrete presence in our everyday lives, from the TV remote control to desk lamps.
It went to a trio of physicists for creating the blue LED. Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but nobody knew how to make a blue one, which was needed for blending with the others to create white light.
The committee that chose the winners said that the 21st century would be lit by diodes, as the 20th was illuminated by incandescent bulbs, and the 19th was the era of the gaslight.
For the same amount of energy consumption, an LED bulb burns four times brighter than a fluorescent bulb and nearly 20 times brighter than an incandescent bulb. They’re also more durable, lasting 10 times as long as a fluorescent bulb and 100 times as long as an incandescent bulb.
Gas lamps produced light by combusting the gas inside it. A standard light bulb produces light as a byproduct of heat. When electricity flows through a very thin tungsten filament inside it, it heats up, and begins to irradiate light.
Diodes are no bigger than a “grain of sand,” and have wafers of semiconducting materials. (A semiconductor is a material that’s porous to electricity.) The passage of electricity through them produces light, not as a result of their getting hot, but due to the movement of electrons inside them.