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Light emitting diode (LED)

A light-emitting diode (LED) is a light source that emits light when an electrical current is applied to it. Discovered in the early 20th century, the technology has been greatly developed and continues to advance through research and development. From early indicator lights with low light output--with only one available color--to today's devices that emit visible, ultraviolet or infra red light, with very high brightness.
The technology behind LED is based on semiconductor technology, which is also the basis of modern computers. In the semiconductor diode, electrons are brought from a state of high energy to a state of low energy state and this energy difference is emitted in the form of light, the effect is called electroluminescence. Specific colors are associated with specialized materials, that are constructed to have an energy gap corresponding to light with particular wavelength/color. An LED is usually a small area (less than 1 mm2) light source, often with optics added directly on top of the chip to shape its radiation pattern and assist in reflection.
LEDs have many advantages to traditional light sources, such as: Low energy consumption, longer lifetime, robustness, small size among others. However they still remain relatively expensive, and have some characteristics that differentiate them from traditional light sources, such as need for current- and heat management. These advantages have caused LEDs to be used in many new applications where traditional light sources could not be used, as well as traditional applications where especially the low energy consumption is appreciated. Despite high price and the need for specialized design, LEDs are seeing adoption in more and more areas of lighting.

Discoveries and early devices

The first known report of a light-emitting solid-state diode was made in 1907 by the British experimenter H. J. Round of Marconi Labs when he noticed electroluminescence produced from a crystal of silicon carbide while using a cat's-whisker detector. 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, and no practical use was made of the discovery for several decades. Rubin Braunstein of the Radio Corporation of America reported on infrared emission from gallium arsenide (GaAs) and other semiconductor alloys in 1955. Braunstein observed infrared emission generated by simple diode structures using GaSb, GaAs, InP, and SiGe alloys at room temperature and at 77 kelvin.
In 1961, experimenters Bob Biard and Gary Pittman working at Texas Instruments, found 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.
The first practical visible-spectrum (red) LED was developed in 1962 by Nick Holonyak Jr., while working at General Electric Company. He later moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Holonyak is seen as the "father of the light-emitting diode". M. George Craford, a former graduate student of Holonyak's, invented the first yellow LED and 10x brighter red and red-orange LEDs in 1972.. In 1976, T.P. Pearsall created the first high-brightness, high efficiency LEDs for optical fiber telecommunications by inventing new semiconductor materials specifically adapted to optical fiber transmission wavelengths.
Up to 1968 visible and infrared LEDs were extremely costly, on the order of US $200 per unit, and so had little practical application. The Monsanto Corporation was the first organization to mass-produce visible LEDs, using gallium arsenide phosphide in 1968 to produce red LEDs suitable for indicators. Hewlett Packard (HP) introduced light-emitting diodes in 1968, initially using GaAsP material supplied by Monsanto. The technology proved to have major applications for alphanumeric displays and was integrated into HP’s early handheld calculators.

Practical use

The first commercial LEDs 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 (see list of signal applications). 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, while maintaining the efficiency and the reliability to an acceptable level. The invention and development of the high power white light LED led to use for illumination (see list of illumination applications).
Most LEDs were made in the very common 5 mm T1¾ and 3 mm T1 packages, but with increasing power output, it has become increasingly necessary to shed excess heat in order to maintain reliability, so more complex packages have been adapted for efficient heat dissipation. Packages for state-of-the-art high power LEDs bear little resemblance to early LEDs.

Continuing development

The first high-brightness blue LED was demonstrated by Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation and was 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 Isamu Akasaki and H. Amano in Nagoya. In 1995, Alberto Barbieri at the Cardiff University Laboratory (GB) investigated the efficiency and reliability of high-brightness LEDs demonstrated a very impressive result by using a transparent contact made of indium tin oxide (ITO) on (AlGaInP/GaAs) LED. The existence of blue LEDs and high efficiency LEDs quickly led to the development of 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.
The development of LED technology has caused their efficiency and light output to increase exponentially, with a doubling occurring about every 36 months since the 1960s, in a way similar to Moore's law. The advances are generally attributed to the parallel development of other semiconductor technologies and advances in optics and material science. This trend is normally called Haitz's Law after Dr. Roland Haitz.


Like a normal diode, the 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 the 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.
Most materials used for LED production have very high refractive indices. This means that much light will be reflected back in to the material at the material/air surface interface. Therefore Light extraction in LEDs is an important aspect of LED production, subject to much research and development.

Life time and failure

Solid state devices such as LEDs are subject to very limited wear and tear if operated at low currents and at low temperatures. Many of the LEDs produced in the 1970s and 1980s are still in service today. Typical lifetimes quoted are 25000 to 100000 hours but heat and current settings can extend or shorten this time significantly.
The most common way for LEDs (and diode lasers) to fail is the gradual lowering of light output and loss of efficiency. Sudden failures, however rare, can occur as well. Early red LEDs were notable for their short lifetime. With the the development of high power LEDs the devices are subjected to higher junction temperatures and higher current densities than traditional devices. This causes stress on the material and may cause early light output degradation. To quantitatively classify lifetime in a standardized manner it has been suggested to use the terms L75 and L50 which is the time it will take a given LED to reach 75% and 50% light output respectively.

 Colors and materials

Conventional LEDs are made from a variety of inorganic semiconductor materials, the following table shows the available colors with wavelength range, voltage drop and material:




Semi-conductor Material


λ > 760

ΔV < 1.9

Gallium arsenide (GaAs)
Aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs)



610 < λ < 760

1.63 < ΔV < 2.03

Aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs)
Gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP)
Aluminium gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP)
Gallium(III) phosphide (GaP)


590 < λ < 610

2.03 < ΔV < 2.10

Gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP)
Aluminium gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP)
Gallium(III) phosphide (GaP)


570 < λ < 590

2.10 < ΔV < 2.18

Gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP)
Aluminium gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP)
Gallium(III) phosphide (GaP)


500 < λ < 570

2.18 < ΔV < 4.0

Indium gallium nitride (InGaN) / Gallium(III) nitride (GaN)
Gallium(III) phosphide (GaP)
Aluminium gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP)
Aluminium gallium phosphide (AlGaP)


450 < λ < 500

2.48 < ΔV < 3.7

Zinc selenide (ZnSe)
Indium gallium nitride (InGaN)
Silicon carbide (SiC) as substrate
Silicon (Si) as substrate — (under development)


400 < λ < 450

2.76 < ΔV < 4.0

Indium gallium nitride (InGaN)



multiple types

2.48 < ΔV < 3.7

Dual blue/red LEDs,
blue with red phosphor,
or white with purple plastic


λ < 400

3.1 < ΔV < 4.4

diamond (C)
Aluminium nitride (AlN)
Aluminium gallium nitride (AlGaN)
Aluminium gallium indium nitride (AlGaInN)-(down to 210 nm)


Broad spectrum

ΔV = 3.5

Blue/UV diode with yellow phosphor

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. However, these devices had too little light output to be of much practical use. In the late 1980s, key breakthroughs in GaN epitaxial growth and p-type doping by Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano (Nagoya, Japan) 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.
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 nitrides containing aluminium, most often AlGaN and AlGaInN, even shorter wavelengths are achievable. Ultraviolet LEDs in a range of wavelengths are becoming available on the market. Near-UV emitters at wavelengths around 375–395 nm are already cheap and often encountered, for example, 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. As the photosensitivity of microorganisms approximately matches the absorption spectrum of DNA, with a peak at about 260 nm, UV LEDs emitting at 250–270 nm are to be expected in prospective disinfection and sterilization devices. Recent research has shown that commercially available UVA LEDs (365 nm) are already effective disinfection and sterilization devices.
Wavelengths down to 210 nm were obtained in laboratories using aluminium nitride.
While not 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 Light

There are two ways of producing high intensity white-light using LEDs. One is to use individual LEDs that emit three primary colors – red, green, and blue, and then mix all the colors to produce white light. The other is to use a phosphor material to convert monochromatic light from a blue or UV LED to broad-spectrum white light, much in the same way a fluorescent light bulb works.

RGB Systems

White light can be produced by mixing differently colored light, the most common method is to use red, green and blue (RGB). Hence the method is called multi-colored white LEDs (sometimes referred to as RGB LEDs). Because its mechanism is involved with sophisticated electro-optical design to control the blending and diffusion of different colors, this approach has rarely been used to mass produce white LEDs in the industry. Nevertheless this method is particularly interesting to many researchers and scientists because of the flexibility of mixing different colors. In principle, this mechanism also has higher quantum efficiency in producing white light.
There are several types of multi-colored white LEDs: di-, tri-, and tetrachromatic white LEDs. Several key factors that play among these different approaches include color stability, color rendering capability, and luminous efficiency. Often higher efficiency will mean lower color rendering, presenting a trade off between the luminous efficiency and color rendering. For example, the dichromatic white LEDs have the best luminous efficiency (120 lm/W), but the lowest color rendering capability. Oppositely although tetrachromatic white LEDs have excellent color rendering capability, they often have poor luminous efficiency. Trichromatic white LEDs are in between, having both good luminous efficiency (>70 lm/W) and fair color rendering capability.
What multi-color LEDs offer is not merely another solution of producing white light, but is a whole new technique of producing light of different colors. In principle, all perceivable colors can be produced by mixing different amounts of three primary colors, and this makes it possible to produce precise dynamic color control as well. As more effort is devoted to investigating this technique, multi-color LEDs should have profound influence on the fundamental method which we use to produce and control light color. However, before this type of LED can truly play a role on the market, several technical problems need to be solved. These certainly include that this type of LED's emission power decays exponentially with increasing temperature, resulting in a substantial change in color stability. Such problem is not acceptable for industrial usage. Therefore, many new package designs aiming to solve this problem have been proposed, and their results are being reproduced by researchers and scientists

 Phosphor based LEDs

This method involves coating an LED of one color (mostly blue LED made of InGaN) with phosphor of different colors to produce white light, the resultant LEDs are called phosphor based white LEDs. A fraction of the blue light undergoes the Stokes shift being transformed from shorter wavelengths to longer. Depending on the color of the original LED, phosphors of different colors can be employed. If several phosphor layers of distinct colors are applied, the emitted spectrum is broadened, effectively increasing the color rendering index (CRI) value of a given LED.
Phosphor based LEDs have a lower efficiency than normal LEDs due to the heat loss from the Stokes shift and also other phosphor-related degradation issues. However, the phosphor method is still the most popular technique for manufacturing high intensity white LEDs. The design and production of a light source or light fixture using a monochrome emitter with phosphor conversion is simpler and cheaper than a complex RGB system, and the majority of high intensity white LEDs presently on the market are manufactured using phosphor light conversion.
The greatest barrier to high efficiency is the seemingly unavoidable Stokes energy loss. However, much effort is being spent on optimizing these devices to higher light output and higher operation temperatures. The efficiency can for instance be increased by adapting better package design or by using a more suitable type of phosphor. Philips Lumileds patented conformal coating process addresses for instance the issue of varying phosphor thickness, giving the white LEDs a more homogeneous white light. With development ongoing the efficiency of phosphor based LEDs is generally increased with every new product announcement.
Technically the phosphor based white LEDs encapsulate InGaN blue LEDs inside of a phosphor coated epoxy. A common yellow phosphor material is cerium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet (Ce3+:YAG).
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 aluminium 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. Another concern is that UV light may leak from a malfunctioning light source and cause harm to human eyes or skin.

Miniature LEDs

These are mostly single-die LEDs used as indicators, and they come in various-sizes from 2 mm to 8 mm, through-hole and surface mount packages. Typical current ratings ranges from around 1 mA to above 20 mA. The small scale set a natural upper boundary on power consumption due to heat caused by the high current density and need for heat sinking.

High Power LEDs

High power LEDs (HPLED) can be driven at hundreds of mA (vs. tens of mA for other LEDs), some with more than one ampere of current, and give out large amounts of light. Since overheating is destructive, the HPLEDs must be highly efficient to minimize excess heat; furthermore, they are often mounted on a heat sink to allow for heat dissipation. If the heat from a HPLED is not removed, the device will burn out in seconds.
A single HPLED can often replace an incandescent bulb in a flashlight, or be set in an array to form a powerful LED lamp.
LEDs have been developed by Seoul Semiconductor that can operate on AC power without the need for a DC converter. For each half cycle part of the LED emits light and part is dark, and this is reversed during the next half cycle. The efficiency of HPLEDs is typically 40 lm/W. As of November 2008 some HPLEDs manufactured by Cree Inc exceed 95 lm/W  (e.g. the XLamp MC-E LED chip emitting Cool White light) and are being sold in lamps intended to replace incandescent, halogen, and even fluorescent style lights as LEDs become more cost competitive.

Custom designs

  • Flashing LEDs are used as attention seeking indicators where it is desired to avoid the complexity of external electronics. 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. In diffused lens LEDs this is visible as a small black dot. Most flashing LEDs emit light of a single color, but more sophisticated devices can flash between multiple colors and even fade through a color sequence using RGB color mixing.
  • Bi-color LEDs are actually two different LEDs in one case. It consists of two dies connected to the same two leads but in opposite directions. Current flow in one direction produces one color, and current in the opposite direction produces the other color. Alternating the two colors with sufficient frequency causes the appearance of a blended third color. For example, a red/green LED operated in this fashion will color blend to produce a yellow appearance.
  • Tri-color LED is two LEDs in one case, but the two LEDs are connected to separate leads so that the two LEDs can be controlled independently and lit simultaneously. A three-lead arrangement is typical with one common lead (anode or cathode).
  • RGB LEDs contain red, green and blue emitters, generally using a four-wire connection with one common lead (anode or cathode).
  • Alphanumeric LED displays are available in seven-segment and starburst format. Seven-segment displays handle all numbers and a limited set of letters. Starburst displays can display all letters. Seven-segment LED displays were in widespread use in the 1970s and 1980s, but increasing use of liquid crystal displays, with their lower power consumption and greater display flexibility, has reduced the popularity of numeric and alphanumeric LED displays.

Considerations for use
Power sources

The current/voltage characteristics of a LED is similar to other diodes, in that the current is dependent exponentially on the voltage. This means that a small change in voltage can lead to a large change in current. If the maximum voltage rating is exceeded by a small amount the current rating may be exceeded by a large amount, potentially damaging or destroying the LED. The typical solution is therefor to use constant current power supplies, or driving the LED at a voltage much below the maximum rating. Since few household power sources (batteries, mains) are constant current sources, most LED fixtures must include a power converter.
Electrical polarity
As for other diodes, current flows easily from p-material to the n-material, this means that the electrical polarity of a LED is very important. If the voltage is applied the wrong way, no current will flow and no light will be produced. If the reverse breakdown voltage rating is exceeded, current will flow, but the unit might be damaged due to the high voltage needed.


  • Efficiency: LEDs produce more light per watt than incandescent bulbs; this is useful in battery powered or energy-saving devices.
  • Color: 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.
  • Size: LEDs can be very small (smaller than 2 mm2) and are easily populated onto printed circuit boards.
  • On/Off time: 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.
  • Cycling: 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.
  • Dimming: LEDs can very easily be dimmed either by Pulse-width modulation or lowering the forward current.
  • Cool light: In contrast to most light sources, LEDs radiate very little heat in the form of IR that can cause damage to sensitive objects or fabrics. Wasted energy is dispersed as heat through the base of the LED.
  • Slow failure: LEDs mostly fail by dimming over time, rather than the abrupt burn-out of incandescent bulbs.
  • Lifetime: 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. Fluorescent tubes typically are rated at about 10,000 to 15,000 hours, depending partly on the conditions of use, and incandescent light bulbs at 1,000–2,000 hours.
  • Shock resistance: LEDs, being solid state components, are difficult to damage with external shock, unlike fluorescent and incandescent bulbs which are fragile.
  • Focus: The solid package of the 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.
  • Toxicity: LEDs do not contain mercury, unlike fluorescent lamps.


  • High price: LEDs are currently more expensive, price per lumen, on an initial capital cost basis, than most 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
  • Temperature dependence: LED performance largely depends on the ambient temperature of the operating environment. Over-driving the LED 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 is required to have a low failure rate.
  • Voltage sensitivity: LEDs must be supplied with the voltage above the threshold and a current below the rating. This can involve series resistors or current-regulated power supplies.
  • Light quality: Most cool-white LEDs have spectra that differ significantly from a black body radiator like 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 cool-white LED illumination than sunlight or incandescent sources, due to metamerism, red surfaces being rendered particularly badly by typical phosphor based cool-white LEDs. However, the color rendering properties of common fluorescent lamps are often inferior to what is now available in state-of-art white LEDs.
  • Area light source: LEDs do not approximate a “point source” of light, but rather a lambertian distribution. So LEDs are difficult to use in applications requiring a spherical light field. LEDs are not capable of providing divergence below a few degrees. This is contrasted with lasers, which can produce beams with divergences of 0.2 degrees or less.
  •  Blue Hazard: There is increasing concern that blue LEDs and cool-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.
  • Blue pollution: Because cool-white LEDs (i.e., LEDs with high color temperature) emit much more blue light than conventional outdoor light sources such as high-pressure sodium lamps, the strong wavelength dependence of Rayleigh scattering means that cool-white LEDs can cause more light pollution than other light sources. It is therefore very important that cool-white LEDs are fully shielded when used outdoors. Compared to low-pressure sodium lamps, which emit at 589.3 nm, the 460 nm emission spike of cool-white and blue LEDs is scattered about 2.7 times more by the Earth's atmosphere. Cool-white LEDs should not be used for outdoor lighting near astronomical observatories.