Science & Innovation: White light and blue LED dreams

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.

Employees measuring the ageing levels of low energy consumption LED light bulbs at a factory in Nanjing, China

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Not many people know that Shuji Nakamura, who together with compatriots Isamy Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014 for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), is working with Malaysian universities to develop this further.

While this may raise some eyebrows, Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (Crest) CEO Jaffri Ibrahim says the country is not only a good choice for this research but also an obvious one. 

“The LED was almost invented in Malaysia. It was one of the early locations for this technology. One of the pioneers here was Hewlett-Packard (HP),” he says.

Penang is considered by many as the LED island of the world, he adds. Many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) here got into things like design and packaging because of the presence of these large LED companies. 

Datuk C L Yoon, one of the pioneers of LED technology in the country, played a part in bringing about the collaboration with Nakamura. “I was with the LED project for a long time, from the 1970s actually. It was one of the first industries in Malaysia,” he says. 

“When HP came to Penang, it bought an LED company and started producing LEDs. Then companies such as Siemens Electronics started doing the same thing.”

Yoon says there were quite a few companies that focused on LED assembly in Penang. “So, over the years, we have developed a core competency in LED technology packaging, but we have never gone into wafers. We went as far upstream as the fabrication of chips, but not the wafers and epitaxial technologies.”

Epitaxial technology refers to the growing of a thin layer on the surface of a crystal (also known as the substrate) so that the overlayer has the same structure as the underlying layer.

Penang became an expert at packaging LEDs but not the construction of the wafer itself. “The LED is made up of a material known as the wafer. You build the device on top of the wafer. We do not build the wafer, which is the material technology. We take the material and build devices out of it,” says Yoon.

Isn’t this enough? “No. The material technology represents the majority of the value-add in the LED,” he says. 

“That means building the diodes that light up. The LED is like the tungsten filament in a lightbulb. So for Penang, our job is to take the filament and build the bulb around it — the packaging — so to speak.

“The filament itself, which is the LED, is still built in the home countries of these companies, whether it is Japan, Germany or the US.”

Why are blue LEDs significant? “Blue is unique in that it can create white light. When you put blue LEDs into certain kinds of phosphors, white light is emitted. And the main market for lighting is white,” explains Yoon.

Other scientists had already developed blue LEDs, but theirs were not efficient enough for commercial use. “That is where Nakamura came in. He kept going and finally invented a special reactor that could create enough purity in the epitaxial layer in commercial volumes,” says Yoon.

Previously, LEDs were only meant for signalling. With Nakamura’s breakthrough, they could be used for illumination. “You can say he changed the world. That was why he received the Nobel Prize,” says Yoon.

When Crest was set up, it met with the major technology clusters in the country to find out their needs in terms of research. When it met with the LED players, three major points came up.

The first was that although a lot of LED work is done in Malaysia, it is not in control of anything. “We are still subservient to the Crees and Osrams of the world, which give us, maybe, mid-level designs for us to design our products. But the high-end designs, they keep to themselves or give their strategic partners,” says Jaffri.

What does this mean? “If there is a huge tender, say to light up a bridge in Shanghai, we always lose out because we do not get the best integrated circuits or chips from these guys. That is why we need to be in control.”

The second point was to build an opto design centre where they could get reference designs from the big boys and go to market really quickly. “It is all nice and good, but if you are not at the forefront of technology, what is the point of having a centre of excellence? You are still subservient to somebody, right?” says Jaffri.

The third point was about increasing Malaysia’s standing in the world LED market. “We were looking at how we could go from being the No 7 global supplier of LEDs to the top three,” he says. At the time, nobody quite knew how to go about it. 

That is how Nakamura came into the picture. According to Jaffri, the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) had been keeping track of him for many years, from when he was still an engineer at Japanese chemical company Nichia, where he was tinkering and making huge breakthroughs in the use of gallium nitrate to make commercially viable blue LEDs.

After Nakamura moved to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), Mida invited him to be a speaker at one of its conferences in 2013. Jaffri says, “So, he delivered a presentation at the conference and one of the Mida guys asked if he would like to meet the LED guys in Malaysia. As he would be there for another night, he said, ‘Yeah, why not?”

Yoon, who had already met Nakamura, organised a session for companies such as Penchem Technologies Sdn Bhd, Opulent Solutions Sdn Bhd, Silterra Malaysia Sdn Bhd, IQ Group Holdings Bhd, Megalux Lighting Sdn Bhd and Optotronic Semiconductors Sdn Bhd. “I talked to Nakamura and Mida and suggested that we do something together. That was before he won the Nobel Prize,” he says.

If Malaysia had tried to get Nakamura after he won the Nobel Prize, it would have been a lot harder. His colleague, Steven DenBaars, professor of materials and electrical and computer engineering as well as director of the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center, says Nakamura was besieged with offers after winning the Nobel Prize. “He had to turn down a lot of other places.”

The conversation at that first meeting revolved around what was being done in Malaysia and Nakamura was impressed. His work at the university had to do with front-end research on the LED, the crystal and chip, but not much beyond that. These people, on the other hand, were industry players talking about the applications of the science.

Needless to say, Nakamura agreed. “He said, ‘You can gain from the front-end and I can gain from the back-end.’ So, he went back to UCSB and wrote a two-page proposal on what they were willing to offer,” says Jaffri.

Nakamura’s initial proposal was for Malaysia to send researchers to UCSB, covering the costs and maybe some of the fees, to learn what was being done there. At this point, seeing that he was talking about research and development, Mida handed the project to Crest. As Crest had already been mulling how to move up the value chain in terms of LEDs, the project seemed to come along at just the right time. 

“We wanted to be an instigator in the LED business for change. How do you do that? You work with the best,” says Jaffri. And it does not get any better than Nakamura.

So, when Mida presented a proposal to work with the inventor of the commercially viable blue LED, Crest jumped at the opportunity. So many things seemed to come together to make this happen.

For one, DenBaars is a huge supporter of this project. He used to work for HP and was stationed in Penang in the early days of the LED industry before returning to the US to be a professor at UCSB.

“Penang has a big infrastructure of LED technologists and a long history of developing the manufacturing of the back-end. So, when Crest approached me to kind of bring in the front-end, which would allow them to do vertical integration, I was all for that,” says DenBaars.

“The US has to compete with countries in Asia. And certainly Malaysia, with its free trade zones and very stable workforce, is a good partner — both academically and from a business point of view.”

Crest organised a team to visit Nakamura at UCSB. “We invited Penchem CEO Dr Ng Chee Mang, Osram’s Dr David Lacey, the guys at Northern Corridor Implementation Authority and Mida,” says Jaffri.

He also wondered how to make the proposal more compelling for Malaysia. “If we sent people there, they would learn what is necessary. But when they come back, there would be no equipment for them to develop the LED chips,” he says.

“What we needed to do was replicate Nakamura’s lab and send researchers over there, not just for a few weeks, but for months to take specific knowledge of the lab and replicate it here. The next step would be to have our own plans to innovate around that for the next generation.”

So, Crest came up with a counterproposal. “We said we were ready to fund the programme if they opened their doors to our PhD students, six months at a time, to ensure that we can replicate whatever they are doing at UCSB and also to do joint research with us at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Malaya (UM). After some negotiation, they agreed,” says Jaffri.

It was one of Crest’s greatest triumphs. But it was also the beginning of two years of struggle, says Jaffri. “We needed to replicate the lab. We got about RM80 million from the government to pay for everything, including the equipment, research and material costs and sending researchers from four local universities to UCSB.”

For Crest, it was not just about getting money from the government. The industry and universities would have to commit something to the programme as well. 

“So, you develop a proposal that states it is a collaborative contribution. The industry would commit their research officers to the project, donate equipment, lab time and some know-how that was not proprietary to them while universities would send their researchers, allocate lab space and provide lab equipment. We calculated that it would be RM120 million over a five-year period,” says Jaffri. So far, RM30 million has been spent on research equipment. 

The government and industry may have been convinced that this was a good idea, but it took a lot of convincing to get some of the local universities on board. “There was a lot of scepticism about the project in the early days. We were still trying to convince them when Nakamura won the Nobel Prize. Then, all our enemies became our friends,” says Jaffri.

This was especially important in terms of where Crest was headed and the role it would play in getting Malaysia to move up the technology value chain. “We were trying to go from funding bits and pieces of research that may or may not be applied to companies on a smaller scale to having a big programme, base technology and ownership of intellectual property that a lot of new products and research could be based on,” says Jaffri.

The programme would help elevate the labs of the Malaysian universities so that they could produce commercialisable outcomes. “For the USM lab to be able to light up a bright LED, it would not be enough. For the likes of companies such as Osram, they would have to be able to make the lab-scale chip replicable every time you light it up. From an engineering standpoint, it is only reliable if it lights up when you put it in 600°C or dip it in -200°C,” he says. 

“That is the engineering challenge that very few universities appreciate — the rigour that you need to bring a lab-scale item to commercialisation. To the likes of Osram, that is the principle that the LED business needs to adopt at every level — the SMEs, universities and so on — if we are serious about this business.”

Without the help of UCSB, it may have taken the local universities about 10 years to get up to speed. “What you could do is buy some machines, read the literature and start from scratch. And it could take you 10 years or never to get anywhere with this technology,” says Lacey, director of research and innovation at Osram Opto Semiconductors (M) Sdn Bhd.

“The UCSB guys were offering a quick start — a transfer of technology followed by collaborative research activity. So, from an industry perspective, it was great because the learning curve could be significantly accelerated due to the active collaboration and involvement of the UCSB guys.

“At the academic level, it would at least be a jumpstart for the Malaysian universities — get them up to speed and put them in a position where they could be at the forefront of academic research. That is a great place to be.”

The advantages of this collaboration started showing early. After only seven months of trying, Dr Ahmad Shuhaimi Abu Bakar, the principal investigator on the UM team, managed to light up a blue LED. 

“Shuhaimi is a really good guy. He did his research in Japan and was already learning about the LED there when he came into the project. We moved him away from his original research to one that is on the UCSB path. And because of that, he is sort of ahead of the game,” says Jaffri.

He adds that when the UCSB researchers came on board, they aligned themselves with local researchers in a matter of weeks. “They started doing what we call growing the crystals. So, within months into the project, they grew crystals in the right way, tested them and lit them up.”

Jaffri points out that growing crystals was a closely guarded secret that Malaysia had not had access to. “It is like the KFC or Coca-Cola formula — Osram or Philips Lumileds would guard it with their lives. So, to get it lit up is a huge challenge and usually takes years. But with the experience of Shuhaimi and UCSB’s understanding of the blue LED, it lit up within seven months. Everyone was stunned!”

The benefits of the collaboration go both ways. DenBaars says, “We sent scientists there to learn how real manufacturing works and how to bring up a process in a foreign country. The overall objective is to bring up the level of scientific collaboration between the two countries.”

But it goes further than that. “It is also to bring it up so that we can achieve real measurable engineering goals that will, hopefully, help Malaysia develop a world-class university system that provides trained employees [for the LED sector] because we all feel that the country will continue to grow in this industry and the companies located there need a skilled workforce, not just factory workers but scientists,” he says.

So far, Osram has already hired two post-doctoral students from this project. However, it is “deliberately not hiring too many as this is not just a field for Osram to harvest”. Rather, Lacey is more concerned about creating an ecosystem. 

“We announced a sponsorship programme for those studying at UM and USM. We will sponsor some of those working within the programme to support them. I do not know if you are aware that government funding for all this academic work is being reduced. It is good if we can somehow fill the gap and keep the group large enough,” he says.

The problem with university groups, Lacey maintains, is the necessity of ensuring a sustainable group of students. “The worst case for any academic is if all your students graduate at the same time and you have to build everything from scratch next year. If you have the same number of students and they are all out of sync in terms of periods of study, then the continuity of knowledge-sharing makes your group a lot more sustainable. So, we do not want to start with everybody now and have everybody finish in five years’ time,” he says.

Naturally, the company would be interested in hiring a few of those people after they have finished their studies to work in an industrial environment. But Lacey feels there is a need to build up university capabilities not just for Osram but also the semiconductor community and to create an ecosystem of technologies around it. 

“Take epitaxy technology. You need to use some rather esoteric analytical techniques. No one organisation uses this technique often enough to justify having it themselves. It is one of those things that you don’t use for maybe a month or two, but when you need it, you need it. And so what you want is a certain critical mass of interested parties so that someone can provide this service and everybody can use it,” he says.

So, one of the other advantages of university involvement in the industry is that it has the same demands, says Lacey. “Maybe they can operate the service for us. Maybe they can share the third-party service. It is really about building an ecosystem and who knows where it will lead to.”

Jaffri says the project met its first target, which was to light up the first blue LED, in January last year. Its second target is to light it up according to industry standards.

“The global challenge is to light up the chips at 140 lumens per watt. Right now, we are at 60. It should take us another two years to get to the 100s, but it looks like we are probably going to hit that this year if we do well. And that is within the range of commercial requirements. If we can light up at that level, it will be needed in the marketplace,” he says.

Lacey adds, “We have a five-year programme, a clear target and a strong committed collaboration globally between the US and Malaysia. People are moving in both directions already and it is working great.”

Where to after the five years are up? Jaffri says Crest can go down one of two paths. “Do we want to take that knowledge and licence it to other people who want to have this technology, or do we invest and build our own LED chips and give full access to all the LED companies that have been around for many years so that they can have the first-mover advantage and build a new generation of LED devices? That is what we will have to decide when we get there.”

Lacey says Osram’s interest in LEDs extends to other wavelengths — infrared, ultraviolet and everything in between. “But the technology, the value, goes beyond Osram and the LED to the ability to make tuned wavelength sensors, solar devices, high-speed electronic devices and power electronic devices. All of these are possible based on this compound semiconductor technology and it puts Malaysia in a good place academically and also to support the industry’s future. Who knows what that future may be.”

Note: This is the first of a two-part article on the Blue LED project in Malaysia