Photonics Handbook® > Light-Emitting Diodes
Light-Emitting Diodes
A Primer
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are semiconductors that convert electrical energy into light energy.
The color of the emitted light depends on the semiconductor material and composition. LEDs are generally classified into three wavelengths: ultraviolet, visible and infrared.

The wavelength range of commercially available LEDs with single-pixel output power of at least 5 mW is 360 to 950 nm. Each wavelength range is made from a specific semiconductor material family, regardless of the manufacturer.

Ultraviolet LEDs: 320 – 360 nm

UV LEDs are rapidly becoming commercialized, specifically used for industrial curing applications and medical/biomedical uses. Until recently, the lower wavelength limitation for high-efficiency die was at 390 nm. It has been moved to 360 nm and further developments over the next few years will likely see the commercialization of high efficiency die in the 320-nm region.

The material primarily used for UV LEDs is gallium nitride/aluminum gallium nitride (GaN/AlGaN). At this time the technology does not yield high power LEDs and the market is unsettled as several companies are moving to improve their processes.

Near-UV to green LEDs: 395 – 530 nm

The material for this wavelength range of products is indium gallium nitride (InGaN). It is technically possible to make a wavelength anywhere between 395 and 530 nm. However, most large suppliers concentrate on creating blue (450 to 475 nm) LEDs for making white light with phosphors and green LEDs that fall into the 520 to 530 nm range for traffic signal green lighting.

Rapid advancements and improvements in efficiency are noted in the blue wavelength range, especially as the race to create brighter, white-illumination sources continues.

Yellow-green to red LEDs: 565 – 645 nm

Aluminum indium gallium phosphide (AlInGaP) is the semiconductor material used for this wavelength range. It is predominately used for traffic signal yellow (590 nm) and red (625 nm) lighting. The lime green (or yellowish-green 565 nm) and orange (605 nm) are also available from this technology, but they are somewhat limited. The technology is rapidly advancing on the red wavelength in particular because of the growing commercial interest in making red-green-blue white lights.

It is interesting to note that neither the InGaN or AlInGaP technologies are available as a pure green (555 nm) emitter. Older, less efficient technologies do exist in this pure green region, but they are not considered efficient or bright. This is due largely to a lack of interest and/or demand from the marketplace and therefore a lack of funding to develop alternative material technologies for this wavelength region.

Deep-red to near-IR LEDs: 660 – 900 nm

There are many variations on device structure in this region, but all use a form of aluminum gallium arsenide (AlGaAs) or gallium arsenide (GaAs) materials. There is still a push to increase the efficiency of these devices, but the increases are only incremental improvements. Applications include IR remote controls, night-vision illumination, industrial photocontrols and various medical applications (at 660 to 680 nm).

Theory of LED operation

LEDs are semiconductor diodes that emit light when an electrical current is applied in the forward direction of the device. An electrical voltage that is large enough for the electrons to move across the depletion region and combine with a hole on the other side to create an electron-hole pair must be applied. As this occurs, the electron releases its energy in the form of light and the result is an emitted photon.

The bandgap of the semiconductor determines the wavelength of emitted light. Shorter wavelengths equal greater energy and therefore higher bandgap materials emit shorter wavelengths. Higher bandgap materials also require higher voltages for conduction. Short wavelength UV-blue LEDs have a forward voltage of 3.5 V while near-IR LEDs have a forward voltage of 1.5 to 2.0 V.

Wavelength availability and efficiency

High-efficiency LEDs can be produced in any wavelength range, with one exception – the 535 to 560 nm range. The overriding factor as to whether or not a specific wavelength is commercially available has to do with market potential, demand and industry-standard wavelengths. This is particularly pronounced in the 420 to 460 nm, 480 to 520 nm, and the 680 to 800 nm regions. Because there are no high-volume applications for these wavelength ranges, there are no high-volume manufacturers providing LED products for these ranges. It is possible, though, to find medium and/or small suppliers offering products to fill these particular wavelengths on a custom basis.

Each material technology has a spot within the wavelength range where it is most efficient. This point is very close to the middle of each range. As the doping level of the semiconductor increases or decreases from the optimal amount, efficiency suffers. That is why a blue LED has much greater output than green or near-UV, amber has more than yellow-green, and near-IR is better than 660 nm. When given a choice, it is much better to design for the center of the range than at the edges. It is also easier to procure products if you are not operating at the edges of the material technology.

Figure 1. The current value is found by applying the equation I = (Vcc – Vf )/RL. To be absolutely certain of the current flow in the circuit, each LED VF would have to be measured and the appropriate load resistor specified. In practical commercial applications Vcc is designed to be much larger than VF and thus the small changes in VF do not affect the overall current by a large amount. The negative aspect of this circuit is a large power loss through RL.

Current and voltage

While LEDs are semiconductors and need a minimum voltage to operate, they are still diodes and need to be operated in a current mode. There are two main ways to operate LEDs in DC mode. The easiest and most common is using a current limiting resistor (Figure 1). The disadvantage to this method is the high heat and power dissipation in the resistor. In order for the current to be stable over temperature changes and from device-to-device, the supply voltage should be much greater than the forward voltage of the LED.

In applications where the operating temperature range is narrow (less than 30 °C) or the output of the LED is not critical, a simple circuit utilizing a current limiting resistor may be used as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2. Example of an accurate and stable circuit. This circuit is commonly referred to as a constant current source. Note that the supply current is determined by the supply voltage (Vcc) – Vin ÷ R1, (Vcc – Vin ) /R1.

A better way to drive the LED is with a constant current source (Figure 2). This circuit will provide the same current from device-to-device and over temperature shifts. It also has lower power dissipation than using a simple current limiting resistor.

Commercial, off-the-shelf LED drivers are available from a number of different sources. Typically these operate using pulse width modulation principles for brightness control.

Figure 3. Gardasoft Vision's PP500 Series LED Lighting controller.

Pulsing LEDs in high-current and/or high-voltage mode for arrays in series-parallel configuration creates a unique set of problems. For the novice designer it is not practical to design a current-controlled pulse drive with the capability to deliver 5 A and 20 V. There are a few manufacturers of specialty equipment for pulsing LEDs (Figure 3).
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When you say, "The color of the emitted light depends on the semiconductor material and composition.", isn't it instead true; that the semiconductor material and composition produce a band-gap energy corresponding to a electromagnetic frequence of a specific light colour desired. It was my understanding that the semiconductor material and composition has nothing to do with the colour of the light other than it can produces the required band-gap energy of a desired colour. In my research the choice of material seemed to be determined by choosing materials that allowed the manufacturing at the cheapest possible cost and also able to produced the band-gap energy required to have the coloured light desired. The materials themselves do not make the colour but the band-gap energy. Could you confirm if this is true? Thank you.
12/22/2009 11:17:42 PM

How can I get a test sample of a UV LED? I do not mind what power level. As semi retired experimental Physicist (Spectroscopy from VUV to NIR), I like to dip my hands in playing with light. I am aware of safety issues involved while operating in my room. Laxman G. Phadke, Ph. D.
11/19/2009 1:00:26 AM

It's easy you can buy uv LEDs at an electronic parts store. You then calculate the resister needed for the power supply you have. You must wire the + and - charge of battery correctly to the LED for it to work. I figure it out how to do it by using an internet search engine and mounted it on a small bread board. I purchased a variable power supply but you can use a battery. The uv LEDs are very small.
12/22/2009 11:27:46 PM