LED Technology

Physical function
A 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 - electrons and electron 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 bandgap materials. The materials used for an LED have a direct band gap with energies corresponding to near-infrared, visible or near-ultraviolet light. Free standing 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 - blue
silicon (Si) as substrate - blue (under development)
sapphire (Al2O3) as substrate - blue
zinc selenide (ZnSe) - blue
diamond (C) - ultraviolet
aluminum nitride (AlN), aluminum gallium nitride (AlGaN) - near to far ultraviolet