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leds Failure modes

The most common way for LEDs (and diode lasers) to fail is the gradual lowering of light output and loss of efficiency. However, sudden failures can occur as well.

The mechanism of degradation of the active region, where the radiative recombination occurs, involves nucleation and growth of dislocations; this requires a presence of an existing defect in the crystal and is accelerated by heat, high current density, and emitted light. Gallium arsenide and aluminum gallium arsenide are more susceptible to this mechanism than gallium arsenide phosphide, indium gallium arsenide phosphide, and indium phosphide. Due to different properties of the active regions, gallium nitride and indium gallium nitride are virtually insensitive to this kind of defects; however, high current density can cause electromigration of atoms out of the active regions, leading to emergence of dislocations and point defects, acting as nonradiative recombination centers and producing heat instead of light. Ionizing radiation can lead to creation of such defects as well, which leads to issues with radiation hardening of circuits containing LEDs (eg. in optoisolators). Early red LEDs were notable for their short lifetime.

White LEDs often use one or more phosphors. The phosphors tend to degrade with heat and age, losing efficiency and causing changes in the produced light color.

High electrical currents at elevated temperatures can cause diffusion of metal atoms from the electrodes into the active region. Some materials, notably indium tin oxide and silver, are subject to electromigration. In some cases, especially with GaN/InGaN diodes, a barrier metal layer is used to hinder the electromigration effects. Mechanical stresses, high currents, and corrosive environment can lead to formation of whiskers, causing short circuits.

High-power LEDs are susceptible to current crowding, nonhomogenous distribution of the current density over the junction. This may lead to creation of localized hot spots, which poses risk of thermal runaway. Nonhomogenities in the substrate, causing localized loss of thermal conductivity, aggravate the situation; most common ones are voids caused by incomplete soldering, or by electromigration effects and Kirkendall voiding. Thermal runaway is a common cause of LED failures.

Some materials of the plastic package tend to yellow when subjected to heat, causing partial absorption (and therefore loss of efficiency) of the affected wavelengths.

Sudden failures are most often caused by thermal stresses. When the epoxy resin used in packaging reaches its glass transition temperature, it starts rapidly expanding, causing mechanical stresses on the semiconductor and the bonded contact, weakening it or even tearing it off. Conversely, very low temperatures can cause cracking of the packaging.

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) may cause immediate failure of the semiconductor junction, a permanent shift of its parameters, or latent damage causing increased rate of degradation. LEDs and lasers grown on sapphire substrate are more susceptible to ESD damage.

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