9 October 2014
Two past European Inventor Award finalists have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. European Inventor Award 2007 finalist Shuji Nakamura (US) has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, and European Inventor Award 2008 finalist Stefan Hell (Germany) the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The award ceremony will take place in Stockholm on 10 December. Both scientists have previously been honoured by the European Patent Office through its annual European Inventor Award.
The Nobel Academy is recognising Shuji Nakamura jointly with Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for their invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Nakamura was named a finalist by the European Patent Office for the European Inventor Award 2007 in the "Non-European countries" category for the same invention.
Stefan Hell, along with Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner, were announced as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. For his ground-breaking work in developing the STED microscope, Hell was a finalist in the "Lifetime achievement" category of the European Inventor Award in 2008.
Launched in 2006, the European Inventor Award is presented annually by the European Patent Office in five categories to individuals and teams whose pioneering inventions provides answers to the challenges of our age and thereby contribute to social progress, economic growth and prosperity.
Hell and Nakamura are not the first European Inventor Award finalists to go on to receive a Nobel Prize: German physicist Peter Grünberg, together with Albert Fert of France, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007 for the discovery of giant magnetoresistance, after having received the European Inventor Award in 2006 in the category "Universities and research institutes". This discovery was essential for a breakthrough in gigabyte hard-disk drives.
Lighting it up: Nakamura creates a world of colour
The invention of the blue light-emitting diode by Nakamura and his colleagues enabled the development of LEDs in any colour, as they could easily be mixed with the green and yellow LEDs that had already been around for some time. In particular, it made it possible to create bright and energy-saving white LEDs, which have become a part of everyday household technology, and are today used in a large number of products ranging from electric lights to mobile phone screens, traffic lights and displays at airports and train stations. For a look at one of the many patents behind the invention, see for example European patent EP92310132.
The energy saving potential of LEDs is tremendous: With 20% of the world's electricity used for lighting, it has been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4%, according to the UK-based Institute of Physics. Moreover, as LED lamps are efficient enough to run on local solar power, they could help more than 1.5 billion people who currently have no access to electricity grids, as the BBC reports.
Hell's STED microscope breaks the visual barrier
Another ground-breaking contribution, this time to clinical microbiology, came in 2001 with the revolutionary Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscope, developed by Professor Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany. Though his efforts met with considerable doubt from colleagues in the beginning, Hell went on to develop a light microscope with a much higher resolution than anyone thought possible. (See for example European patent EP0801759.)
With a microscope able to look deep inside living cells, scientists can launch new studies into the origins of diseases and develop new insights into the principles of life at a molecular level. Hell's invention has advanced the research of cancer and infectious diseases tremendously, a field to which he himself has contributed directly as head of the High Resolution Optical Microscopy Division at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg. Little wonder STED has quickly proven an essential tool in everyday clinical research.