A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor light source that emits light when current flows through it. Electrons in the semiconductor recombine with electron holes, releasing energy in the form of photons. The color of the light (corresponding to the energy of the photons) is determined by the energy required for electrons to cross the band gap of the semiconductor.
Appearing as practical electronic components in 1962, the earliest LEDs emitted low-intensity infrared (IR) light. Infrared LEDs are used in remote-control circuits, such as those used with a wide variety of consumer electronics. The first visible-light LEDs were of low intensity and limited to red. Modern LEDs are available across the visible, ultraviolet (UV), and infrared wavelengths, with high light output.
LEDs are made in different packages for different applications. A single or a few LED junctions may be packed in one miniature device for use as an indicator or pilot lamp. An LED array may include controlling circuits within the same package, which may range from a simple resistor, blinking or color changing control, or an addressable controller for RGB devices. Higher-powered white-emitting devices will be mounted on heat sinks and will be used for illumination. Alphanumeric displays in dot matrix or bar formats are widely available. Special packages permit connection of LEDs to optical fibers for high-speed data communication links.
Unlike incandescent light bulbs, which illuminate 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. 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. Most LEDs have low reverse breakdown voltage ratings, so they will also be damaged by an applied reverse voltage above this threshold. The cause of damage is overcurrent resulting from the diode breakdown, not the voltage itself. LEDs driven directly from an AC supply of more than the reverse breakdown voltage may be protected by placing a diode (or another LED) in inverse parallel. The manufacturer will normally advise how to determine the polarity of the LED in the product datasheet. However, there is no standardization of polarity markings for surface mount devices.
LED power sources
The voltage versus current characteristics of an LED are similar to any diode. Current is approximately an exponential function of voltage according to the Shockley diode equation, and a small voltage change may result in a large change in current. If the voltage is below or equal to the threshold no current flows and the result is an unlit LED. If the voltage is too high, the current will exceed the maximum rating, overheating and potentially destroying the LED.
Current through the LED must be regulated by an external circuit such as a constant current source to prevent damage. Since most common power supplies are (nearly) constant-voltage sources, LED fixtures must include a power converter, or at least a current-limiting resistor. In some applications, the internal resistance of small batteries is sufficient to keep current within the LED rating.
Series resistors are a simple way to stabilize the LED current, but energy is wasted in the resistor.
Miniature indicator LEDs are normally driven from low voltage DC via a current-limiting resistor. Currents of 2 mA, 10 mA and 20 mA are common. Sub-mA indicators may be made by driving ultrabright LEDs at very low current.
In coin cell powered keyring-type LED lights, the resistance of the cell itself is usually the only current limiting device.
LEDs with built-in series resistors are available. These may save printed circuit board 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.
The value for the series resistance may be obtained from Ohm's law, considering that the supply voltage is offset by the voltage drop across the diode, which varies little over the range of useful currents:
R = (Vp − Vled − Vs) / Iled
R is resistance in ohms, typically rounded up to the next higher resistor value.
Vp is the power supply voltage in volts, e.g. 9-volt battery.
Vled is the LED forward voltage drop across the LED in volts, shown as Vf on LED datasheets. Typically, the forward voltage of an LED is between 1.8 and 3.3 volts. It varies by the color of the LED. A red LED typically drops around 1.7 to 2.0 volts, but since both voltage drop and light frequency increase with band gap, a blue LED may drop around 3 to 3.3 volts.
Vs is the voltage drop across the switch in volts: (A) for no switch, use 0 volts, (B) for mechanical switch, use 0 volts, (C) for BJT transistor, use VCE(sat) collector-emitter saturation voltage from the transistor datasheet.
Iled is the desired current of the LED in amps. The maximum current is shown on LED datasheets, for example 20 mA (0.020A) is common for many small LEDs. Many circuits operate LEDs at less than the recommended maximum current, to save power, to permit the use of a standard resistor value, or to reduce brightness.
Strings of multiple LEDs are normally connected in series. In one configuration, the source voltage must be greater than or equal to the sum of the individual LED voltages; typically the LED voltages add up to around two-thirds of the supply voltage. A single current-limiting resistor may be used for each string.
Parallel operation is also possible but can be more problematic. Parallel LEDs must have closely matched forward voltages (Vf) in order to have similar branch currents and, therefore, similar light output. Variations in the manufacturing process can make it difficult to obtain satisfactory operation when connecting some types of LEDs in parallel.
Sources: Wikipedia, Light-emitting diode, LED circuit.
Useful links: Fundamentals to automotive LED driver circuits (pdf).
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