Brilliant! By Bob Johnson (book review).

Want to hear a light story? I mean a real light story, like the ones you must have in your house or in the torch you use that uses white LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes in case you don’t know the acronym) which have only come into their own in the past eight years. For these you have to thank a Japanese engineer called Shuji Nakamura and Bob Johnson’s book ‘Brilliant!’ is partially his life and the technology that has swept the planet and the twenty or so years it took to get that far.


All right, so red, green and amber LEDs have been around for yonks but what Nakamura discovered was how to make blue and white LEDs and brighter ones at that. Low voltage, no heat and long-lasting and the ultimate replacement for the filament lamp. I think most of us reading here have moved away from filament lamps to those gas charged pipe low voltage lamps but the power and even less voltage of LED lamps will quickly surpass even that.

Reading Shuji Nakamura’s history and you quickly realise that had he been born in the west, he would have easily been called a geek as he has similar qualities to us other geeks. Dedicated and single-minded, especially when he knows he’s right. He certainly doesn’t go in for the obedience and shyness associated with others of his culture as he’s an independent thinker and willing to go his own way. Reading about the Japanese culture, I was more amazed how after a little guidance from his university tutor and a desire not to work in the crowded city that he ultimately landed on his feet at Nichia, a small company that was fearful of closing down on the Japanese island he lived on with his family. Then again, his company boss, Nobuo Ogawa, appeared to be an aged maverick with a love for mountain climbing and willing to take chances on the young scientist, unlike his later boss, Eiji Ogawa, who appears more devoted to the Japanese way of leadership.

Nakamura’s research isn’t the only thing cover in this book. Johnson also examines the work of his rivals who were getting nowhere near the results he was getting who also came to like him. Nakamura also worked contrary to his bosses demands and went his own way and made the bright blue LED possible. If ever there is an argument for companies to give their research and development departments their heads then ensure they read this book and think long term as opposed to short term possibilities. I think all companies would be better off working both set-ups if they want a long life.

I should point out that there is a lot of information about creating thin layer compounds using gallium nitride and gallium arsenide but as these are what are electrified to give light should also give you some insight into how such a small piece of material sheathed in plastic does the next time you look at a LED. When Nakamura’s developments turned to lasers, I then realised how blu-ray disks could carry more data. In effect, reading this book, you are seeing science in the making in our century that we are all using, not something that is being used in an obscure way. Reading how Nakamura teaches his students by doing than theorising is an ethic that should definitely be applied more. There might be a lot more mistakes and wrong paths that way but at least they will have proven not to have worked and might lead to other better choices.

Indeed, section two shifts over to LED applications. They are low voltage, mostly unbreakable, providing you don’t hit its battery source and cheap. Reading about them being applied in third world countries where they can move away from using kerosene lamps, which can be dangerous from fumes and fire, and you can immediately see their world is going to change for the better. This is being done by the appropriately named Canadian company ‘Light Up The World’ at low budget. The uses in other parts of the world are also starting to go up. Like many of you here, I use low voltage tubular lights in my house but they are hazardous to throw away when they die. White LEDs, if anything like the small torch I have, are out there might not only deal with SAD effects, having no colour impurities, but at more light for less cost because it doesn’t have any colour impurities. In these inflationary times that has to be something to be considered. UV based LEDS in the water supplies can also destroy bugs like anthrax in the water and are already being employed. When I first heard of white LEDs being available a few years back, I was only thinking of what I could do with them in model-making and not the full picture that this book is showing.

Seeing the applications coming into their own now, it’s obvious that there is a real revolution in lighting. Unlike the latest low voltage lamps which are harder to throw away because of the chemicals they contain, LED based lamps don’t wear out quickly and just fade when they come to the end of their life. I suspect some company will attach something to measure lumens and give an alarm but with their long life that might seem like an unnecessary expense.

The biggest impression I got from this book was to order up an LED lamp to try in my living room. They come in a variety of fittings so make sure you buy the one that fits your light sockets if you choose this option. As mine are the standard bayonet BA22d and not the smaller BA15d that was my choice. As a bit of a cautionary note, if you use 100W normally use that as your selector option when choosing as I found a 60W LED lamp far too dim for my living room even without the glass covered lampshade. What the wattage is like normally doesn’t mean that it will use that much only its light output. In fact, when the 100W LED lamp arrived, the box said 75W. The same also applies with the choice of white as a warm white tends to be a little dull and daylight white is better and probably the better choice if you suffer from SAD effects although I would be interested to hear from any of you who have this problem as to how effective these lamps are. There is a little heat given off but not nearly as much as a standard lamp. The fact that LED lamps will also save money in your electricity bill and healthier for the environment is just topping on the cake. If we all do it then we’ll all save electricity. Don’t throw away your old low voltage lamps, too much mercury after all, but keep as spares or use in rooms you don’t use too much. No sense wasting them and they will still last a long time.

As you can tell, I learnt a lot from this book and I’m only touching on the main points above. You’ll also get a better inkling how LEDs are made and why particular elements and their compounds are preferred over others. When you see that these are used at a few molecules thickness, I think you’ll be looking at these lights with a lot more respect and how far we’ve come since Edison. Even more, you’ll have an immense respect for Shuji Nakamura himself for leading a critical revolution in lighting. As the book title says, brilliant.

GF Willmetts

February 2015

(pub: Prometheus Books. 347 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $19.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-062-7)

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