And the Award Goes to …

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded jointly to three scientists for inventing blue light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, a source that now lights up everything from homes to streetlights to smartphones.

Blue LEDs

American Shuji Nakamura along with Japan’s Isamu Akasaki and Horoshi Amano revolutionized lighting technology 20 years ago when they created blue LEDs, which when coupled with red and green LEDs produces white light.

Though red and green diodes have been around since the mid-20th century and have been used in applications such as watches and calculators, scientists were struggling to invent the shorter-wavelength blue LEDs for 30 years. According to the awarding committee, the trio was able to succeed where everyone else had failed.

LED lights save on energy, are long-lasting and are environmentally friendly because they do not contain mercury. LEDs are roughly 15 times more efficient than regular bulbs, LED technology continues to improve at a remarkable rate.

The Nobel Committee said LEDs hold great promise for increasing the quality of life for more than 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids. In many third-world countries, households still burn either wood or gas for lighting. This lack of lighting in the developing world is not just inefficient, but also results in indoor air pollution that is killing millions of people.

Low energy demands of LEDs mean that many households that aren’t currently connected to the grid could use solar panels and small batteries to power LED lights. However, the high cost of LEDs has primarily kept poorer countries from adopting them in the past. Fortunately, prices have been steadily dropping over time and will likely make broader worldwide adoption possible in the future.

In the United States, lighting is currently a massive source of energy use, making up about 17 percent of all electricity consumption. The United States and Europe envision replacing all existing lighting technologies by 2050 or so in an effort to boost energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.