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Light-emitting diode

  A light-emitting diode (LED) /ɛl.i.ˈdiː/[1] is a semiconductor diode that emits incoherent narrow-spectrum light when electrically biased in the forward direction of the p-n junction, as in the common LED circuit. This effect is a form of electroluminescence.

An LED is usually a small area source, often with extra optics added to the chip that shapes its radiation pattern.[2] LED's are often used as small indicator lights on electronic devices and increasingly in higher power applications such as flashlights and area lighting. 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. An LED can be used as a regular household light source.



In the early 20th century, Henry Round of Marconi Labs first noted that a semiconductor junction would produce light. Russian Oleg Vladimirovich Losev independently created the first LED in the mid 1920s; his research, though distributed in Russian, German and British scientific journals, was ignored.[3] Rubin Braunstein of the Radio Corporation of America reported on infrared emission from gallium arsenide (GaAs) and other semiconductor alloys in 1955.[4] Experimenters at Texas Instruments, Bob Biard[5] and Gary Pittman, found in 1961 that gallium arsenide gave off infrared radiation 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., then of the General Electric Company and later with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed the first practical visible-spectrum LED in 1962[6] and is seen as the "father of the light-emitting diode".[7] Holonyak's former graduate student, M. George Craford, invented in 1972 the first yellow LED and 10x brighter red and red-orange LEDs.[8]

Shuji Nakamura of Nichia of Japan demonstrated the first high-brightness blue LED based on InGaN, borrowing on critical developments in GaN nucleation on sapphire substrates and the demonstration of p-type doping of GaN which were developed by I. Akasaki and H. Amano in Nagoya. The existence of the blue LED led quickly to the first white LED, which employed a Y3Al5O12:Ce, or "YAG", phosphor coating to mix yellow (down-converted) light with blue to produce light that appears white. Nakamura was awarded the 2006 Millennium Technology Prize for his invention.[9]

LED technology

Physical function

  Like a normal diode, an LED 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—electrons and holes—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 band gap materials. The materials used for an LED have a direct band gap with energies corresponding to near-infrared, visible or near-ultraviolet light.

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 an 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 may be absorbed and turned into additional heat, thus lowering the efficiency. This type of reflection also occurs at the surface of the package if the LED is coupled to a medium with a different refractive index such as a glass fiber or air. The refractive index of most LED semiconductors is quite high, so in almost all cases the LED is coupled into a much lower-index medium. The large index difference makes the reflection quite substantial (per the Fresnel coefficients), and this is usually one of the dominant causes of LED inefficiency. Often more than half of the emitted light is reflected back at the LED-package and package-air interfaces. The reflection is most commonly reduced by using a dome-shaped (half-sphere) package with the diode in the center so that the outgoing light rays strike the surface perpendicularly, at which angle the reflection is minimized. An anti-reflection coating may be added as well. The package may be cheap plastic, which 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. Other strategies for reducing the impact of the interface reflections include designing the LED to reabsorb and reemit the reflected light (called photon recycling) and manipulating the microscopic structure of the surface to reduce the reflectance, either by introducing random roughness or by creating programmed moth eye surface patterns.

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

With this wide variety of colors, arrays of multicolor LEDs can be designed to produce unconventional color patterns.[11]

Ultraviolet and blue 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 the impression of 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.[12] However, these devices were too feeble to be of much practical use. In the late 1980s, key breakthroughs in GaN epitaxial growth and p-type doping by Akasaki and Amano (Nagoya, Japan) [13] ushered in the modern era of GaN-based optoelectronic devices. Building upon this foundation, in 1993 high brightness blue LEDs were demonstrated through the work of Shuji Nakamura at Nichia Corporation.[14]

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 aluminium 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.

With aluminium containing nitrides, most often AlGaN and AlGaInN, even shorter wavelengths are achievable. Ultraviolet LEDs are becoming available on the market, in a range of wavelengths. Near-UV emitters at wavelengths around 375–395 nm are already cheap, common to encounter e.g., as black light lamp replacements for inspection of anti-counterfeiting UV watermarks in some documents and paper currencies. Shorter wavelength diodes, while substantially more expensive, are commercially available for wavelengths down to 247 nm.[15] As the photosensitivity of microorganisms approximately matches the absorption spectrum of DNA, with peak at about 260 nm, UV LEDs emitting at 250–270 nm are prospective for disinfecting devices.

Wavelengths down to 210 nm were obtained in laboratories using aluminium nitride.

While not actually an LED as such, an ordinary NPN bipolar transistor will emit violet light if its emitter-base junction is subjected to non-destructive reverse breakdown. This is easy to demonstrate by filing the top off a metal-can transistor (BC107, 2N2222 or similar) and biasing it well above emitter-base breakdown (≥ 20 V) via a current limiting resistor.

White LEDs

A combination of red, green and blue LEDs can produce the impression of white light, though white LEDs today rarely use this principle. Most "white" LEDs in production today are modified blue LEDs: GaN-based, InGaN-active-layer LEDs emit blue light of wavelengths between 450 nm and 470 nm. This InGaN-GaN structure is covered with 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. 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 has been used since 1996 for the manufacture 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 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.[16]

Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs)


If the emitting layer material of an LED is an organic compound, it is known as an Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED). To function as a semiconductor, the organic emitting material must have conjugated pi bonds. The emitting material can be a small organic molecule in a crystalline phase, or a polymer. Polymer materials can be flexible; such LEDs are known as PLEDs or FLEDs.

Compared with regular LEDs, OLEDs are lighter, and polymer LEDs can have the added benefit of being flexible. Some possible future applications of OLEDs could be:

  • Inexpensive, flexible displays
  • Light sources
  • Wall decorations
  • Luminous cloth

OLEDs have been used to produce visual displays for portable electronic devices such as cellphones, digital cameras, and MP3 players. Larger displays have been demonstrated, but their life expectancy is still far too short (<1,000 hours) to be practical.

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 inputs. Also, the semiconductor dies were mounted onto metal slugs to allow for heat removal from the LED die.

One of the key advantages of LED-based lighting is its high efficiency, as measured by its light output per unit power input. White LEDs quickly matched and overtook the efficiency of standard incandescent lighting systems. In 2002, Lumileds made five-watt LEDs available with a luminous efficacy of 18–22 lumens per watt. For comparison, a conventional 60–100 watt incandescent lightbulb produces around 15 lumens/watt, and standard fluorescent lights produce up to 100 lumens/watt. (The luminous efficacy article discusses these comparisons in more detail.)

In September 2003, a new type of blue LED was demonstrated by the company Cree, Inc. to provide 24 mW 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, and more than four times as efficient as standard incandescents. In 2006 they demonstrated a prototype with a record white LED luminous 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, which would be approaching an order of magnitude improvement over standard incandescents and better even than standard fluorescents.[17] Nichia Corp. has developed a white light LED with luminous efficacy of 150 lm/W at a forward current of 20 mA.[18]

It should be noted that high-power (≥ 1 Watt) LEDs are necessary for practical general lighting applications. Typical operating currents for these devices begin at 350 mA. The highest efficiency high-power white LED is claimed by Philips Lumileds Lighting Co. with a luminous efficacy of 115 lm/W (350 mA).

Today, OLEDs operate at substantially lower efficiency than inorganic (crystalline) LEDs. The best luminous efficacy of an OLED so far is about 10% of the theoretical maximum of 683, or about 68 lm/W. These claim to be much cheaper to fabricate than inorganic LEDs, and large arrays of them can be deposited on a screen using simple printing methods to create a color graphical display.

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 aluminium gallium arsenide are more susceptible to this mechanism than 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 defect; 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 the creation of such defects as well, which leads to issues with radiation hardening of circuits containing LEDs (e.g., 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. Pink LEDs often use an organic phosphor formulation which may degrade after just a few hours of operation causing a major shift in output 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.

Laser diodes may be subject to catastrophic optical damage, when the light output exceeds a critical level and causes melting of the facet.

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.

Considerations in use


Unlike incandescent light bulbs, which light up regardless of the electrical polarity, LEDs will only light with correct electrical polarity. When the voltage across the p-n junction is in the correct direction, a significant current flows and the device is said to be forward-biased. If the voltage is of the wrong polarity, the device is said to be reverse biased, very little current flows, and no light is emitted. Some LEDs can be operated on an alternating current voltage, but they will only light with positive voltage, causing the LED to turn on and off at the frequency of the AC supply.

While the only 100% accurate way to determine the polarity of an LED is to examine its datasheet, these methods are usually reliable:

sign: +
terminal: anode (A) cathode (K)
leads: long short
exterior: round flat
interior: small large
wiring: red black

Less reliable methods of determining polarity are:

sign: +
marking: none stripe
pin: 1 2
PCB: round square

While it is not an officially reliable method, it is almost universally true that the cup that holds the LED die corresponds to the cathode. It is strongly recommended to apply a safe voltage and observe the illumination as a test regardless of what method is used to determine the polarity.

Because the voltage versus current characteristics of an LED are much like any diode (that is, current approximately an exponential function of voltage), a small voltage change results in a huge change in current. Added to deviations in the process this means that a voltage source may barely make one LED light while taking another of the same type beyond its maximum ratings and potentially destroying it.

Since the voltage is logarithmically related to the current it can be considered to remain largely constant over the LEDs operating range. Thus the power can be considered to be almost proportional to the current. In order to keep power nearly constant with variations in supply and LED characteristics, the power supply should be a "current source", that is, it should supply an almost constant current. If high efficiency is not required (e.g., in most indicator applications), an approximation to a current source made by connecting the LED in series with a current limiting resistor to a constant voltage source is generally used.

Most LEDs have low reverse breakdown voltage ratings, so they will also be damaged by an applied reverse voltage of more than a few volts. Since some manufacturers don't follow the indicator standards above, if possible the data sheet should be consulted before hooking up an LED, or the LED may be tested in series with a resistor on a sufficiently low voltage supply to avoid the reverse breakdown. If it is desired to drive an LED directly from an AC supply of more than the reverse breakdown voltage then it may be protected by placing a diode (or another LED) in inverse parallel.

LEDs can be purchased with built in series resistors. These can save PCB space and are especially useful when building prototypes or populating a PCB in a way other than its designers intended. However the resistor value is set at the time of manufacture, removing one of the key methods of setting the LED's intensity. To increase efficiency (or to allow intensity control without the complexity of a DAC), the power may be applied periodically or intermittently; so long as the flicker rate is greater than the human flicker fusion threshold, the LED will appear to be continuously lit.

Provided there is sufficient voltage available, multiple LEDs can be connected in series with a single current limiting resistor. Parallel operation is generally problematic. The LEDs have to be of the same type in order to have a similar forward voltage. Even then, variations in the manufacturing process can make the odds of satisfactory operation low.[19]

Bicolor LED units contain two diodes, one in each direction (that is, two diodes in inverse parallel) and each a different color (typically red and green), allowing two-color operation or a range of apparent colors to be created by altering the percentage of time the voltage is in each polarity. Other LED units contain two or more diodes (of different colors) arranged in either a common anode or common cathode configuration. These can be driven to different colors without reversing the polarity, however, more than two electrodes (leads) are required.

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 an integrated multivibrator circuit 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.

Generally, for newer common standard LEDs in 3 mm or 5 mm packages, the following forward DC potential differences are typically measured. The forward potential difference depending on the LED's chemistry, temperature, and on the current (values here are for approx. 20 milliamperes, a commonly found maximum value).

Color Potential Difference
Infrared 1.6 V
Red 1.8 V to 2.1 V
Orange 2.2 V
Yellow 2.4 V
Green 2.6 V
Blue 3.0 V to 3.5 V
White 3.0 V to 3.5 V
Ultraviolet 3.5 V

Many LEDs are rated at 5 V maximum reverse voltage.

LEDs also behave as photocells, and will generate a current depending on the ambient light. They are not efficient as photocells, and will only produce a few microamps, but will put out a surprising voltage level, as much as 2 or 3 volts. This is enough to operate an amplifier or CMOS logic gate. This effect can be used to make an inexpensive light sensor, for example to decide when to turn on an LED illuminator.

Advantages of using LEDs


  • LEDs produce more light per watt than do incandescent bulbs; this is useful in battery powered or energy-saving devices. [20]
  • LEDs can emit light of an intended color without the use of color filters that traditional lighting methods require. This is more efficient and can lower initial costs.
  • The solid package of an LED can be designed to focus its light. Incandescent and fluorescent sources often require an external reflector to collect light and direct it in a usable manner.
  • When used in applications where dimming is required, LEDs do not change their color tint as the current passing through them is lowered, unlike incandescent lamps, which turn yellow.
  • LEDs are ideal for use in applications that are subject to frequent on-off cycling, unlike fluorescent lamps that burn out more quickly when cycled frequently, or HID lamps that require a long time before restarting.
  • LEDs, being solid state components, are difficult to damage with external shock. Fluorescent and incandescent bulbs are easily broken if dropped on the ground.
  • LEDs can have a relatively long useful life. One report estimates 35,000 to 50,000 hours of useful life, though time to complete failure may be longer.[21] Fluorescent tubes typically are rated at about 30,000 hours, and incandescent light bulbs at 1,000–2,000 hours.[citation needed]
  • LEDs mostly fail by dimming over time, rather than the abrupt burn-out of incandescent bulbs.[22]
  • LEDs light up very quickly. A typical red indicator LED will achieve full brightness in microseconds; LEDs used in communications devices can have even faster response times.
  • LEDs can be very small and are easily populated onto printed circuit boards.
  • LEDs do not contain mercury, while compact fluorescent lamps do.

Disadvantages of using LEDs

  • LEDs are currently more expensive, price per lumen, on an initial capital cost basis, than more conventional lighting technologies. The additional expense partially stems from the relatively low lumen output and the drive circuitry and power supplies needed. However, when considering the total cost of ownership (including energy and maintenance costs), LEDs far surpass incandescent or halogen sources and begin to threaten compact fluorescent lamps. In December 2007, scientist at Glasgow University claimed to have found a way to make Light Emitting Diodes brighter and use less power than energy efficient light bulbs currently on the market by imprinting the holes into billions of LEDs in a new and cost effective method using a process known as nano-imprint lithography. [23]
  • LED performance largely depends on the ambient temperature of the operating environment. Driving an LED hard in high ambient temperatures may result in overheating of the LED package, eventually leading to device failure. Adequate heat-sinking is required to maintain long life. This is especially important when considering automotive, medical, and military applications where the device must operate over a large range of temperatures, and are required to have a low failure rate.
  • LEDs must be supplied with the correct current. This can involve shunt resistors or regulated power supplies.[24]
  • The spectrum of some white LEDs differs significantly from a black body radiator, such as the sun or an incandescent light. The spike at 460 nm and dip at 500 nm can cause the color of objects to be perceived differently under LED illumination than sunlight or incandescent sources, due to metamerism.[25] However, it should be noted that color rendering properties of common fluorescent lamps are often inferior to what is now available in state-of-art white LEDs.
  • LEDs do not approximate a "point source" of light, so cannot be used in applications that need a sharply directive and collimated beam. LEDs are not capable of providing directivity below a few degrees. In such cases LASERs (or amplified spontaneous emission devices) may be a better option.
  • There is increasing concern that blue LEDs and white LEDs are now capable of exceeding safe limits of the so-called blue-light hazard as defined in eye safety specifications such as ANSI/IESNA RP-27.1-05: Recommended Practice for Photobiological Safety for Lamp and Lamp Systems.[26][27]

LED applications








List of LED applications

Some of these applications are further elaborated upon in the following text.

  • Streetlights
  • Large scale video displays
  • Architectural lighting
  • Status indicators on all sorts of equipment
  • Traffic lights and signals
  • Light source for machine vision systems, requiring bright, focused, homogeneous and possibly strobed illumination.
  • Exit signs
  • Motorcycle and Bicycle lights
  • Toys and recreational sporting goods, such as the Flashflight
  • Railroad crossing signals
  • Continuity indicators
  • Flashlights, including some mechanically powered models.
  • Emergency vehicle lighting
  • Elevator Push Button Lighting
  • Thin, lightweight message displays at airports and railway stations and as destination displays for trains, buses, trams and ferries.
  • Red or yellow LEDs are used in indicator and alphanumeric displays in environments where night vision must be retained: aircraft cockpits, submarine and ship bridges, astronomy observatories, and in the field, e.g. night time animal watching and military field use.
  • Red, yellow, green, and blue LEDs can be used for model railroading applications
  • Remote controls, such as for TVs and VCRs, often use infrared LEDs.
  • The Nintendo Wii's sensor bar uses infrared LEDs.
  • In optical fiber and Free Space Optics communications.
  • In dot matrix arrangements for displaying messages.
  • Glowlights, as a more expensive but longer lasting and reusable alternative to Glowsticks.
  • Grow lights composed of LEDs are more efficient, both because LEDs produce more lumens per watt than other alternatives, and also because they can be tuned to the specific wavelengths plants can make the most use of.[citation needed]
  • Movement sensors, for example in optical computer mice
  • Because of their long life and fast switching times, LEDs have been used for automotive high-mounted brake lights and truck and bus brake lights and turn signals for some time, but many high-end vehicles are now starting to use LEDs for their entire rear light clusters. Besides the gain in reliability, this has styling advantages because LEDs are capable of forming much thinner lights than incandescent lamps with parabolic reflectors. The significant improvement in the time taken to light up (perhaps 0.5s faster than an incandescent bulb) improves safety by giving drivers more time to react. It has been reported that at normal highway speeds this equals one car length increased reaction time for the car behind. White LED headlamps are beginning to make an appearance.
  • Backlighting for LCD televisions and displays. The availability of LEDs in specific colors (RGB) enables a full-spectrum light source which expands the color gamut by as much as 45%.
  • New stage lighting equipment is being developed with LED sources in primary red-green-blue arrangements.
  • Lumalive, a photonic textile
  • LED-based Christmas lights have been available since 2002, but are only now beginning to gain in popularity and acceptance due to their higher initial purchase cost when compared to similar incandescent-based Christmas lights. For example, as of 2006, a set of 50 incandescent lights might cost US$2, while a similar set of 50 LED lights might cost US$10. The purchase cost can be even higher for single-color sets of LED lights with rare or recently-introduced colors, such as purple, pink or white. Regardless of the higher initial purchase price, the total cost of ownership for LED Christmas lights would eventually be lower than the TCO for similar incandescent Christmas lights[citation needed] since an LED requires much less power to output the same amount of light as a similar incandescent bulb. More to the point, LEDs have practically unlimited life and are hard-wired rather than using unreliable sockets as do replaceable bulbs. So a set of LED lights can be expected to outlive many incandescent sets, and without any maintenance.
  • LED phototherapy for acne using blue or red LEDs has been proven to significantly reduce acne over a 3 month period.[citation needed]
  • As a medium quality voltage reference in electronic circuits. The forward voltage drop (e.g., about 1.7 V for a normal red LED) can be used instead of a Zener diode in low-voltage regulators. Although LED forward voltage is much more current-dependent than a good Zener, Zener diodes are not available below voltages of about 3 V.
  • Some flatbed scanners use an array of red, green, and blue LEDs rather than the typical cold-cathode fluorescent lamp as the light source. Having independent control of three illuminant colors allows the scanner to calibrate itself for more accurate color balance, and there is no need for warm-up.
  • Computers, for hard drive activity and power on. Some custom computers feature LED accent lighting to draw attention to a given component. Many computer manufactuers use LEDs to tell the user its current state. One example would be the Mac, which tells its user when it is asleep by fading the LED activity lights in and out, in and out.
  • Light bulbs
  • Lanterns

Optoisolators and optocouplers

Main article: Opto-isolator

  An LED may be combined with a photodiode or phototransistor in a single electronic device to provide a signal path with electrical isolation between two circuits. An optoisolator will have typical breakdown voltages between the input and output circuits of typically 500 to 3000 volts. This is especially useful in medical equipment where the signals from a low voltage sensor circuit (usually battery powered) in contact with a living organism must be electrically isolated from any possible electrical failure in a recording or montoring device operating at potentially dangerous voltages. An optoisolator also allows information to be transferred between circuits not sharing a common ground potential. An optocoupler may not have such high breakdown voltages and may even share a ground between input and output, but both types are useful in preventing electrical noise, particularly common mode electrical noise, on a sensor circuit from being transferred to the receiving circuit (where it may adversly affect the operation or durability of various components) and/or transferring a noisy signal. Optoisolators are also used in the feedback circuit of a DC to DC converter, allowing power to be transferred while retaining electrical isolation between the input and output.

Light sources for machine vision systems

Machine vision systems often require bright and homogeneous illumination, so features of interest are easier to process. LEDs are often used to this purpose, and this field of application is likely to remain one of the major application areas until price drops low enough to make signalling and illumination applications more widespread. LEDs constitute a nearly ideal light source for machine vision systems for several main reasons:

  • Size of illuminated field is usually comparatively small and Vision systems or smart camera are quite expensive, so cost of LEDs is usually a minor concern, compared to signaling applications.
  • LED elements tend to be small and can be placed with high density over flat or even shaped substrates (PCBs etc) so that bright and homogeneous sources can be designed which direct light from tightly controlled directions on inspected parts.
  • LEDs often have or can be used with small, inexpensive lenses and diffusers, helping to achieve high light densities and very good lighting control and homogeneity.
  • LEDs can be easily strobed (in the microsecond range and below) and synchronized; their power also has reached high enough levels that sufficiently high intensity can be obtained, allowing well lit images even with very short light pulses: this is often used in order to obtain crisp and sharp "still" images of fast moving parts.
  • LEDs come in several different colors and wavelengths, easily allowing to use the best color for each application, where different color may provide better visibility of features of interest. Having a precisely known spectrum allows tightly matched filters to be used to separate informative bandwidth or to reduce disturbing effect of ambient light.
  • LEDs usually operate at comparatively low working temperatures, simplifying heat management and dissipation, therefore allowing plastic lenses, filters and diffusers to be used. Waterproof units can also easily be designed, allowing for use in harsh or wet environments (food, beverage, oil industries).
  • LED sources can be shaped in several main configurations (spot lights for reflective illumination; ring lights for coaxial illumination; backlights for contour illumination; linear assemblies; flat, large format panels; dome sources for diffused, omnidirectional illumination).
  • Very compact designs are possible, allowing for small LED illuminators to be integrated within smart cameras and vision sensors.



The first known report of a light-emitting solid-state diode was made in 1907 by the British experimenter H. J. Round. However, no practical use was made of the discovery for several decades.[28] Independently, Oleg Vladimirovich Losev published "Luminous carborundum [silicon carbide] detector and detection with crystals" in the Russian journal Telegrafiya i Telefoniya bez Provodov (Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony).[3] Losev's work languished for decades.

The first practical LED was invented by Nick Holonyak, Jr., in 1962 while he was at General Electric Company. The first LEDs became commercially available in late 1960s, and were red. They were commonly used as replacements for incandescent indicators, and in seven-segment displays, first in expensive equipment such as laboratory and electronics test equipment, then later in such appliances as TVs, radios, telephones, calculators, and even watches. These red LEDs were bright enough only for use as indicators, as the light output was not enough to illuminate an area. Later, other colors became widely available and also appeared in appliances and equipment. As the LED materials technology became more advanced, the light output was increased, and LEDs became bright enough to be used for illumination.

Most LEDs were made in the very common 5 mm T1-3/4 and 3 mm T1 packages, but with higher power, it has become increasingly necessary to get rid of the heat, so the packages have become more complex and adapted for heat dissipation. Packages for state-of-the-art high power LEDs bear little resemblance to early LEDs (see, for example, Philips Lumileds).

LED panels


There are two types of LED panels: conventional, using discrete LEDs, and surface mounted device (SMD) panels. Most outdoor screens and some indoor screens are built around discrete LEDs, also known as individually mounted LEDs. A cluster of red, green, and blue diodes is driven together to form a full-color pixel, usually square in shape. These pixels are spaced evenly apart and are measured from center to center for absolute pixel resolution. The largest LED display in the world is over 1,500 foot (457.2 m) long and is located in Las Vegas, Nevada covering the Fremont Street Experience.

Most indoor screens on the market are built using SMD technology—a trend that is now extending to the outdoor market. An SMD pixel consists of red, green, and blue diodes mounted on a chipset, which is then mounted on the driver PC board. The individual diodes are smaller than a pinhead and are set very close together. The difference is that the maximum viewing distance is reduced by 25% from the discrete diode screen with the same resolution.

  Indoor use generally requires a screen that is based on SMD technology and has a minimum brightness of 600 candelas per square meter (unofficially called nits). This will usually be more than sufficient for corporate and retail applications, but under high ambient-brightness conditions, higher brightness may be required for visibility. Fashion and auto shows are two examples of high-brightness stage lighting that may require higher LED brightness. Conversely, when a screen may appear in a shot on a television show, the requirement will often be for lower brightness levels with lower color temperatures (common displays have a white point of 6500 to 9000 K, which is much bluer than the common lighting on a television production set).


For outdoor use, at least 2,000 nits are required for most situations, whereas higher brightness types of up to 5,000 nits cope even better with direct sunlight on the screen. (The brightness of LED panels can be reduced from the designed maximum, if required.)

Suitable locations for large display panels are identified by factors such as line of sight, local authority planning requirements (if the installation is to become semi-permanent), vehicular access (trucks carrying the screen, truck-mounted screens, or cranes), cable runs for power and video (accounting for both distance and health and safety requirements), power, suitability of the ground for the location of the screen (if there are no pipes, shallow drains, caves, or tunnels that may not be able to support heavy loads), and overhead obstructions.

Early LED flat panel TV history

The first recorded flat panel LED television screen prototype to be developed was by James P. Mitchell in 1977. The modular, scalable display was enabled by MV50 LEDs and newly available TTL (transistor transistor logic) memory addressing circuit technology. The prototype and paper were displayed at an Engineering Exposition in Anaheim May 1978, and organized by the Science Service in Washington D.C. The LED TV display received special recognition from NASA, General Motors Corporation and area universities including The University of California Irvine, Robert M. Saunders Prof. of Engineering and IEEE President 1977. Additionally, technology business representatives from the U.S. and overseas witnessed operation of the monochromatic LED television display. The prototype remains operational. An LCD (liquid crystal display) matrix design was also presented in the accompanying scientific paper as a future television display method using a similar array scanning design.

The early display prototype was red monochromatic. Low-cost efficient blue LEDs did not emerge until the early 1990s, completing the desired RGB color triad. High-brightness colors gradually emerged in the 1990s enabling new designs for outdoor signage and huge video displays for billboards and stadiums.

Multi-touch sensing

Since LEDs share some basic physical properties with photodiodes, which also use p-n junctions with band gap energies in the visible light wavelengths, they can also be used for photo detection. These properties have been known for some time, but more recently so-called bidirectional LED matrices have been proposed as a method of touch-sensing. In 2003, Dietz, Yerazunis, and Leigh published a paper describing the use of LEDs as cheap sensor devices.

In this usage, various LEDs in the matrix are quickly switched on and off. LEDs that are on shine light onto a user's fingers or a stylus. LEDs that are off function as photodiodes to detect reflected light from the fingers or stylus. The voltage thus induced in the reverse-biased LEDs can then be read by a microprocessor, which interprets the voltage peaks and then also uses them elsewhere.

See also

  • Photometry (optics) Main Photometry/Radiometry article – explains technical terms
  • LED lamp – solid state lighting (SSL)
  • Blinkies
  • Throwies
  • LED circuit
  • Nixie tube
  • Light Up the World Foundation
  • Lumalive, a photonic textile


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  • Solid State Lighting program at U.S. DOE
  • Variations of light characteristics of white LEDs
  • Photonics Sources Group, Tyndall National Institute GaN and other photonics research at the Tyndall National Institute, Ireland.
  • Solid State Lighting, Michael Shur - Rensselaer Polytechnic
  • Applications notes about Discrete LEDs including basic driver circuits
  • LED Replacing Neon in Channel Letters for Outdoor Electrical Signs
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Light-emitting_diode". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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