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LED Developer Nakamura Awarded Millennium Technology Prize

An engineer whose high-profile patent dispute challenged the Japanese tradition of selfless devotion to employers has been awarded the $1.2 million Millennium Technology Prize for his inventions in light and laser technology.

Shuji Nakamura, now a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, created "new and elementary lights sources," Millennium Prize Foundation Chairman Jaakko Ihamuotila said at a ceremony announcing the award Thursday in Espoo.

Nakamura, 52, developed the blue light-emitting diode, or LED, widely used in traffic signals, illumination and for storing information onto optical disks.

Last year, Nakamura and his former employer Nichia Corp. reached an $8 million settlement in a dispute over a lighting-technology patent.

The case symbolized the struggle of the individual worker against companies over intellectual property in Japan, a nation where corporate devotion has been the rule.

Tapio Alvesalo, secretary general of the foundation, said Nakamura's inventions have led to an efficient light source that has a life span 50 times greater than those of traditional light bulbs, or incandescent light.

Alvesalo compared Nakamura's invention to U.S. inventor Thomas Edison's "discovery of incandescent light, which gave us the light bulb that we all know today."

But Nakamura's invention may help replace the traditional light bulb, as his method efficiently produces light from electricity without creating heat, he said.

Nakamura's invention of a blue laser also can be used to purify water, benefiting developing countries, Alvesalo said. "You give bacteria in water real sunburn with the laser. You kill them."

The biennial prize — "for a technological innovation that significantly improves the quality of human life" — was awarded for the second time since it was established in 2002.

Two years ago, its recipient was Tim Berners-Lee, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web while he worked at the CERN nuclear-research institute in Switzerland.

The eight-member international selection committee studied 109 nominations from 32 countries for this year's prize, Ihamuotila said.

Nakamura was expected to receive the award at a ceremony in Helsinki in September.

The Millennium Prize Foundation is an independent fund supported by the Finnish government and several Finnish companies and organizations.