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what is light emitting diodes

A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor device that emits incoherent narrow-spectrum light when electrically biased in the forward direction. This effect is a form of electroluminescence. LEDs are small extended sources with extra optics added to the chip, which emit a complex intensity spatial distribution. The color of the emitted light depends on the composition and condition of the semiconducting material used, and can be infrared, visible or near-ultraviolet. Rubin Braunstein of the Radio Corporation of America first reported on infrared emission from gallium arsenide (GaAs) and other semiconductor alloys in 1955. Experimenters at Texas Instruments, Bob Biard and Gary Pittman, found in 1961 that gallium arsenide gave off infrared (invisible) light when electric current was applied. Biard and Pittman were able to establish the priority of their work and received the patent for the infrared light-emitting diode. Nick Holonyak Jr. of the General Electric Company developed the first practical visible-spectrum LED in 1962.

Physical function

An LED is a unique type of semiconductor diode. Like a normal diode, it consists of a chip of semiconducting material impregnated, or doped, with impurities to create a p-n junction. As in other diodes, current flows easily from the p-side, or anode, to the n-side, or cathode, but not in the reverse direction. Charge-carriers X electrons and electron holes X flow into the junction from electrodes with different voltages. When an electron meets a hole, it falls into a lower energy level, and releases energy in the form of a photon.

The wavelength of the light emitted, and therefore its color, depends on the band gap energy of the materials forming the p-n junction. In silicon or germanium diodes, the electrons and holes recombine by a non-radiative transition which produces no optical emission, because these are indirect bandgap materials. The materials used for an LED have a direct band gap with energies corresponding to near-infrared, visible or near-ultraviolet light.

LEDs are usually constantly illuminated when a current passes through them, but flashing LEDs are also available. Flashing LEDs resemble standard LEDs but they contain a small chip inside which causes the LED to flash with a typical period of one second. This type of LED comes most commonly as red, yellow, or green. Most flashing LEDs emit light of a single wavelength, but multicolored flashing LEDs are available too.

LED development began with infrared and red devices made with gallium arsenide. Advances in materials science have made possible the production of devices with ever-shorter wavelengths, producing light in a variety of colors.

LEDs are usually built on an n-type substrate, with electrode attached to the p-type layer deposited on its surface. P-type substrates, while less common, occur as well. Many commercial LEDs, especially GaN/InGaN, also use sapphire substrate. Substrates that are transparent to the emitted wavelength, and backed by a reflective layer, increase the LED efficiency. The refractive index of the package material should match the index of the semiconductor, otherwise the produced light gets partially reflected back into the semiconductor, where it gets absorbed and turns into additional heat.

The semiconducting chip is encased in a solid plastic lens, which is much tougher than the glass envelope of a traditional light bulb or tube. The plastic may be colored, but this is only for cosmetic reasons or to improve the contrast ratio; the color of the packaging does not substantially affect the color of the light emitted.

Conventional LEDs are made from a variety of inorganic semiconductor materials, producing the following colors:

  • aluminum gallium arsenide (AlGaAs) - red and infrared
  • aluminum gallium phosphide (AlGaP) - green
  • aluminum gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP) - high-brightness orange-red, orange, yellow, and green
  • gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) - red, orange-red, orange, and yellow
  • gallium phosphide (GaP) - red, yellow and green
  • gallium nitride (GaN) - green, pure green (or emerald green), and blue also white (if it has an AlGaN Quantum Barrier)
  • indium gallium nitride (InGaN) - near ultraviolet, bluish-green and blue
  • silicon carbide (SiC) as substrate X blue
  • silicon (Si) as substrate X blue (under development)
  • sapphire (Al2O3) as substrate X blue
  • zinc selenide (ZnSe) - blue
  • diamond (C) - ultraviolet
  • aluminum nitride (AlN), aluminum gallium nitride (AlGaN) - near to far ultraviolet (down to 210 nm)

Ultraviolet, Blue and white LEDs

Blue LEDs are based on the wide band gap semiconductors GaN (gallium nitride) and InGaN (indium gallium nitride). They can be added to existing red and green LEDs to produce white light, though white LEDs today rarely use this principle.

The first blue LEDs were made in 1971 by Jacques Pankove (inventor of the gallium nitride LED) at RCA Laboratories. However, these devices were too feeble to be of much practical use, and it was not until 1993 that high brightness blue LEDs became possible through the work of Shuji Nakamura at Nichia Corporation.

By the late 1990s, blue LEDs had become widely available. They have an active region consisting of one or more InGaN quantum wells sandwiched between thicker layers of GaN, called cladding layers. By varying the relative InN-GaN fraction in the InGaN quantum wells, the light emission can be varied from violet to amber. AlGaN aluminum gallium nitride of varying AlN fraction can be used to manufacture the cladding and quantum well layers for ultraviolet LEDs, but these devices have not yet reached the level of efficiency and technological maturity of the InGaN-GaN blue/green devices. If the active quantum well layers are GaN, as opposed to alloyed InGaN or AlGaN, the device will emit near-ultraviolet light with wavelengths around 350-370 nm. Green LEDs manufactured from the InGaN-GaN system are far more efficient and brighter than green LEDs produced with non-nitride material systems.

Most "white" LEDs in production today are based on an InGaN-GaN structure, and emit blue light of wavelengths between 450 nm V 470 nm blue GaN. These GaN-based, InGaN-active-layer LEDs are covered by a yellowish phosphor coating usually made of cerium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet (Ce3+:YAG) crystals which have been powdered and bound in a type of viscous adhesive. The LED chip emits blue light, part of which is efficiently converted to a broad spectrum centered at about 580 nm (yellow) by the Ce3+:YAG. The single crystal form of Ce3+:YAG is actually considered a scintillator rather than a phosphor. Since yellow light stimulates the red and green receptors of the eye, the resulting mix of blue and yellow light gives the appearance of white, the resulting shade often called "lunar white". This approach was developed by Nichia and was used by them from 1996 for manufacturing of white LEDs.

The pale yellow emission of the Ce3+:YAG can be tuned by substituting the cerium with other rare earth elements such as terbium and gadolinium and can even be further adjusted by substituting some or all of the aluminum in the YAG with gallium. Due to the spectral characteristics of the diode, the red and green colors of objects in its blue yellow light are not as vivid as in broad-spectrum light. Manufacturing variations and varying thicknesses in the phosphor make the LEDs produce light with different color temperatures, from warm yellowish to cold bluish; the LEDs have to be sorted during manufacture by their actual characteristics. Philips Lumileds patented conformal coating process addresses the issue of varying phosphor thickness, giving the white LEDs a more consistent spectrum of white light.

White LEDs can also be made by coating near ultraviolet (NUV) emitting LEDs with a mixture of high efficiency europium based red and blue emitting phosphors plus green emitting copper and aluminum doped zinc sulfide (ZnS:Cu, Al). This is a method analogous to the way fluorescent lamps work. However the ultraviolet light causes photodegradation to the epoxy resin and many other materials used in LED packaging, causing manufacturing challenges and shorter lifetimes. This method is less efficient than the blue LED with YAG:Ce phosphor, as the Stokes shift is larger and more energy is therefore converted to heat, but yields light with better spectral characteristics, which render color better. Due to the higher radiative output of the ultraviolet LEDs than of the blue ones, both approaches offer comparable brightness.

The newest method used to produce white light LEDs uses no phosphors at all and is based on homoepitaxially grown zinc selenide (ZnSe) on a ZnSe substrate which simultaneously emits blue light from its active region and yellow light from the substrate.

A new technique just developed by Michael Bowers, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, involves coating a blue LED with quantum dots that glow white in response to the blue light from the LED. This technique produces a warm, yellowish-white light similar to that produced by incandescent bulbs.

Operational parameters and efficiency

Most typical LEDs are designed to operate with no more than 30-60 milliwatts of electrical power. Around 1999, Philips Lumileds introduced power LEDs capable of continuous use at one watt. These LEDs used much larger semiconductor die sizes to handle the large power input. Also, the semiconductor dies were mounted to metal slugs to allow for heat removal from the LED die. In 2002, Lumileds made 5-watt LEDs available with efficacy of 18V22 lumens per watt.

In September 2003 a new type of blue LED was demonstrated by the company Cree, Inc. to give 240 lm/W at 20 mA. This produced a commercially packaged white light giving 65 lumens per watt at 20 mA, becoming the brightest white LED commercially available at the time. In 2006 they demonstrated a prototype with a record white LED efficacy of 131 lm/W at 20 mA. Also Seoul Semiconductor has plans for 135 lm/W by 2007 and 145 lm/W by 2008. Nichia Corp. has developed a white light LED with efficacy of 150 lm/W at a forward current of 20 mA.

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