x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Bright ideas

We've once again glimpsed the future of light. But that doesn't mean we understand it.

There seems no place that the LED hasn't conquered. That flashing red light on your alarm clock? It's an LED. The traffic signal lining your route to work? LED. And how about the efficient light bulbs that Swedish furniture giant Ikea has announced will be the only type of bulb they will sell come 2016? You guessed it.

When Nick Holonyak Jr and colleagues created the first visible-spectrum light-emitting diode, or LED, in 1962, not even they seemed to grasp the power they'd harnessed. By devising a device that converts electrical energy into optical energy they'd found a way to illuminate at a much higher efficiently than incandescent bulbs. The technology has since revolutionised lighting in aviation, communications, video - the list goes on.

As Mr Holonyak recently told a BBC interviewer, his innovation did not bring him any personal wealth, just a bit of notoriety within the scientific community. Re-engineering the future, it seems, doesn't necessarily pay.

There is no doubt much more to be learnt about light. This year's Nobel Prize in physics went to two scientists for their work peering into atoms and particles of light called photons.

We've now arrived at the future LED innovation made possible. How long will it be before the 2012 Nobel for "measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems" changes everything? Perhaps we've glimpsed the future again. But that doesn't mean we understand it.