Dr. James Coleman, a leader in the development and application of semiconductor lasers and photonic devices, has been elected a 2014 Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).
The distinction of Fellow is given to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. NAI Fellows represent more than 150 research universities and governmental nonprofit research institutions.
"The National Academy of Inventors is relatively young but addresses one of the most important legs of technology -- invention," said Coleman, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. "I am very honored to be included this year among a group of well-known inventors, most of whom are more prolific than I."
Coleman's earliest contributions have impacted the processes and materials used in creating semiconductor structures and photonics -- technologies that combine the physics of light with electricity. Photonic technology helps transmit information that is communicated through cellphones, desktop Internet in homes, medical equipment in hospitals, among other uses. His semiconductor paradigm is used in everyday electronic devices such as CD and DVD players.
"Every engineer or scientist has fond feelings for their own ideas, even ones that don't amount to much," said Coleman, holder of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science Distinguished Chair and Chair in Electrical Engineering. "So when one or two have a more tangible impact, you are proud, of course. It feels good to think that you have played a very small part in something that people use all the time."
Coleman earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1970s. At that time, semiconductor lasers were only about a decade old and impractical.
Coleman spent several years working for Bell Laboratories and Rockwell International, where he helped demonstrate the effectiveness of a process known as metalorganic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) to make lasers, solar cells and photodetectors with better performance characteristics.
He then returned to his alma mater as a professor, where he brought his experience making semiconductors using MOCVD, which then was still a new process.
In the early 1990s, Coleman's group challenged the traditional paradigm about the practicalities of using layers of materials of different sizes, known as strained layers, in semiconductor devices. Contrary to conventional wisdom that devices made of these layers would bend and fail under stress, he found that they lasted longer.
His findings opened a new class of structures that makes better and different lasers that were not previously practical. His work has led to wider applications of semiconductor lasers and manufacture and production on a more economical and feasible scale. His research refined the semiconductor devices and materials used to make them.
In addition to the National Academy of Inventors, Coleman was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012 for contributions to semiconductor lasers and photonic devices.
Coleman is also a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Optical Society of America (OSA), the American Physical Society, SPIE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Other accolades include receiving the Distinguished Lecturer Award and William Streifer Award given by the IEEE Photonics Society; the David Sarnoff Award given by IEEE; the Nick Holonyak Jr. Award given by the OSA; and the John Tyndall Award given jointly by the IEEE Photonics Society and OSA.
Coleman retired from the University of Illinois in 2013 as an endowed chair professor of electrical engineering and materials science and engineering, and joined UT Dallas that same year.
His group continues to earn patents on novel semiconductor nanostructures, and at the Jonsson School, he continues his research on strained layer lasers, self-assembled and patterned quantum dots, and low threshold and high-power single mode index guided lasers and arrays. In addition to his administrative duties in the Jonsson School, Coleman also finds time to encourage faculty to invent and to develop his own innovations.
"The last year and half has been a time to reset, but technical work is always in the back of my mind," said Coleman, holder of 10 U.S. patents. "I still have lots of ideas, and I'm looking forward to nominating some of my colleagues here for Fellowship in the National Academy of Inventors."
NAI Fellows include 61 presidents and senior leadership of research universities and nonprofit research institutes; 208 members of other National Academies (Science, Engineering and the Institute of Medicine); 21 inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame; 16 recipients of U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation; 10 recipients of the U.S. National Medal of Science; 21 Nobel Laureates;11 Lemelson-MIT prize recipients; 112 AAAS Fellows; and 62 IEEE Fellows, among other awards and distinctions.