The prize was awarded in the category "Generation and Design of New Materials Creating Novel Functions." Ironically, when Esaki first submitted his paper describing the use of thin-film growth techniques to engineer new semiconductor materials, it was rejected by Physical Review Letters because it was "too speculative" and involved "no new physics." Esaki was working for IBM at the time and later published a shortened version of the paper in the IBM Journal of Research and Development .

Superlattices crystals are composed of layered thin films that exploit quantum effects to generate unusual electrical and optical properties now used in a wide variety of semiconductor products. Almost half of the world's semiconductor physicists now work in this area.

Esaki was born in Osaka in 1925 and received both his BSc and PhD from the University of Tokyo. He received the Nobel prize for his PhD work on what is now known as the Esaki tunnel diode.