BERKELEY -- UC Berkeley professor Eli Yablonovitch is one of two recipients of the 2012 Harvey Prize, a prestigious international award for contributions in science, technology and medicine, among other areas.

His work over the last 30 years is responsible for technologies we use daily -- innovations that could significantly alter our lives in the years to come.

Yablonovitch, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, accepted the award April 30 in Haifa, Israel, for his "pioneering discoveries in photonics, optoelectronics and semiconductors," according to a news release from the American Technion Society. A panel of faculty members from several Israeli universities selected him out of a pool of 29 candidates. Two prizes of $75,000 are awarded yearly at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Eric S. Lander, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, received the award for the Human Health category.

"I'm very lucky to be counted among that group," said Yablonovitch during a telephone interview from the United Kingdom, where he had traveled to give several lectures at Cambridge University. Yablonovitch's photovoltaic research has yielded solar panel material that is 50 times more absorbent, thanks to the light-trapping factor known as the "Yablonovitch Limit" -- or 4n2.

"It means that instead of the light going straight through the solar panel, it can be trapped inside," he explained, which causes light to bounce around inside, resulting in a more efficient solar panel. Almost all commercial panels worldwide use this concept.

Yablonovitch was also recognized for his work with photonic crystals, another technology used in optical telecommunications.

"It's the idea that, just like you have semiconductors that power our computers, you can have semiconductors for light," he said. Yablonovitch was later surprised to learn that the phenomenon already existed in nature, giving animals like peacocks and parrots their vivid colors.

As a result of Yablonovitch's research, solar panel efficiency has increased from 25 percent to 28.8 percent, making them more useful and affordable.

"(Solar energy is) going to play a bigger and bigger role every year that goes by," Yablonovitch speculated. "Eventually it will provide fuel. In 100 years, maybe all of our energy will come from solar panels."

Yablonovitch is also credited with being the first to place semiconductor lasers under mechanical pressure to improve their efficiency. Optical telecommunications, DVD players, red laser pointers and most computer mouse clicks now use this concept.

While his inventions are widely used today, Yablonovitch said it took decades for the scientific community to warm up to them. Yablonovitch's theories have since enjoyed great acclaim and recognition by various scientific organizations.

Born in Austria but raised in Canada, Yablonovitch taught at Harvard and UCLA before coming to UC Berkeley in 2007. He has also worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories and Exxon, where he conducted solar cell research before the oil giant lost interest in solar energy. Despite founding four companies of his own, Yablonovitch is a proponent of universities enabling students "to pursue science for its own sake.

"I don't think I would have been anywhere near as successful if I wasn't given the opportunity to develop myself even after my Ph.D.," Yablonovitch said when accepting his award in Israel.

Winning the Harvey Prize is considered by some to be a strong predictor of future Nobel Prize laureates, but Yablonovitch isn't convinced, instead preferring to focus on the research ahead.

---