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A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor device 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. White light is obtained by using multiple semiconductors or a layer of light-emitting phosphor on the semiconductor device.
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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. Early LEDs were often used as indicator lamps, replacing small incandescent bulbs, and in seven-segment displays. Later developments produced LEDs available in visible, ultraviolet (UV), and infrared wavelengths, with high, low, or intermediate light output, for instance white LEDs suitable for room and outdoor area lighting. LEDs have also given rise to new types of displays and sensors, while their high switching rates are useful in advanced communications technology with applications as diverse as aviation lighting, fairy lights, automotive headlamps, advertising, general lighting, traffic signals, camera flashes, lighted wallpaper, horticultural grow lights, and medical devices.
LEDs have many advantages over incandescent light sources, including lower power consumption, longer lifetime, improved physical robustness, smaller size, and faster switching. In exchange for these generally favorable attributes, disadvantages of LEDs include electrical limitations to low voltage and generally to DC (not AC) power, inability to provide steady illumination from a pulsing DC or an AC electrical supply source, and lesser maximum operating temperature and storage temperature. In contrast to LEDs, incandescent lamps can be made to intrinsically run at virtually any supply voltage, can utilize either AC or DC current interchangeably, and will provide steady illumination when powered by AC or pulsing DC even at a frequency as low as 50 Hz. LEDs usually need electronic support components to function, while an incandescent bulb can and usually does operate directly from an unregulated DC or AC power source.
Electroluminescence as a phenomenon was discovered in 1907 by the English experimenter H. J. Round of Marconi Labs, using a crystal of silicon carbide and a cat's-whisker detector. Russian inventor Oleg Losev reported creation of the first LED in 1927. His research was distributed in Soviet, German and British scientific journals, but no practical use was made of the discovery for several decades, in part due to the very inefficient light-producing properties of silicon carbide, the semiconductor Losev used.
Hungarian Zoltán Bay together with György Szigeti pre-empted LED lighting in Hungary in 1939 by patenting a lighting device based on silicon carbide, with an option on boron carbide, that emitted white, yellowish white, or greenish white depending on impurities present.
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 gallium antimonide (GaSb), GaAs, indium phosphide (InP), and silicon-germanium (SiGe) alloys at room temperature and at 77 kelvins.
The early red LEDs were bright enough only for use as indicators, as the light output was not enough to illuminate an area. Readouts in calculators were so small that plastic lenses were built over each digit to make them legible. Later, other colors became widely available and appeared in appliances and equipment.
Early LEDs were packaged in metal cases similar to those of transistors, with a glass window or lens to let the light out. Modern indicator LEDs are packed in transparent molded plastic cases, tubular or rectangular in shape, and often tinted to match the device color. Infrared devices may be dyed, to block visible light. More complex packages have been adapted for efficient heat dissipation in high-power LEDs. Surface-mounted LEDs further reduce the package size. LEDs intended for use with fiber optics cables may be provided with an optical connector.
The first blue-violet LED using magnesium-doped gallium nitride was made at Stanford University in 1972 by Herb Maruska and Wally Rhines, doctoral students in materials science and engineering. At the time Maruska was on leave from RCA Laboratories, where he collaborated with Jacques Pankove on related work. In 1971, the year after Maruska left for Stanford, his RCA colleagues Pankove and Ed Miller demonstrated the first blue electroluminescence from zinc-doped gallium nitride, though the subsequent device Pankove and Miller built, the first actual gallium nitride light-emitting diode, emitted green light. In 1974 the U.S. Patent Office awarded Maruska, Rhines and Stanford professor David Stevenson a patent for their work in 1972 (U.S. Patent US3819974 A). Today, magnesium-doping of gallium nitride remains the basis for all commercial blue LEDs and laser diodes. In the early 1970s, these devices were too dim for practical use, and research into gallium nitride devices slowed.
In August 1989, Cree introduced the first commercially available blue LED based on the indirect bandgap semiconductor, silicon carbide (SiC). SiC LEDs had very low efficiency, no more than about 0.03%, but did emit in the blue portion of the visible light spectrum.
Two years later, in 1993, high-brightness blue LEDs were demonstrated by Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation using a gallium nitride growth process. In parallel, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University were working on developing the important GaN deposition on sapphire substrates and the demonstration of p-type doping of GaN. This new development revolutionized LED lighting, making high-power blue light sources practical, leading to the development of technologies like Blu-ray.
Even though white light can be created using individual red, green and blue LEDs, this results in poor color rendering, since only three narrow bands of wavelengths of light are being emitted. The attainment of high efficiency blue LEDs was quickly followed by the development of the first white LED. In this device a Y3Al5O12:Ce (known as "YAG" or Ce:YAG phosphor) cerium-doped phosphor coating produces yellow light through fluorescence. The combination of that yellow with remaining blue light appears white to the eye. Using different phosphors produces green and red light through fluorescence. The resulting mixture of red, green and blue is perceived as white light, with improved color rendering compared to wavelengths from the blue LED/YAG phosphor combination.
The first white LEDs were expensive and inefficient. The light output then increased exponentially. The latest research and development has been propagated by Japanese manufacturers such as Panasonic, and Nichia, and by Korean and Chinese manufacturers such as Samsung, Solstice, Kingsun, Hoyol and others. This trend in increased output has been called Haitz's law after Roland Haitz.
Light output and efficiency of blue and near-ultraviolet LEDs rose and the cost of reliable devices fell. This led to relatively high-power white-light LEDs for illumination, which are replacing incandescent and fluorescent lighting.
The LED chip is encapsulated inside a small, plastic, white mold. It can be encapsulated using resin (polyurethane-based), silicone, or epoxy containing (powdered) Cerium-doped YAG phosphor. After allowing the solvents to evaporate, the LEDs are often tested, and placed on tapes for SMT placement equipment for use in LED light bulb production. Encapsulation is performed after probing, dicing, die transfer from wafer to package, and wire bonding or flip chip mounting, perhaps using Indium tin oxide, a transparent electrical conductor. In this case, the bond wire(s) are attached to the ITO film that has been deposited in the LEDs.Some "remote phosphor" LED light bulbs use a single plastic cover with YAG phosphor for several blue LEDs, instead of using phosphor coatings on single-chip white LEDs.
In a light emitting diode, the recombination of electrons and electron holes in a semiconductor produces light (be it infrared, visible or UV), a process called "electroluminescence". The wavelength of the light depends on the energy band gap of the semiconductors used. Since these materials have a high index of refraction, design features of the devices such as special optical coatings and die shape are required to efficiently emit light.
Unlike a laser, the light emitted from an LED is neither spectrally coherent nor even highly monochromatic. Its spectrum is sufficiently narrow that it appears to the human eye as a pure (saturated) color. Also unlike most lasers, its radiation is not spatially coherent, so it cannot approach the very high intensity characteristic of lasers.
By selection of different semiconductor materials, single-color LEDs can be made that emit light in a narrow band of wavelengths from near-infrared through the visible spectrum and into the ultraviolet range. As the wavelengths become shorter, because of the larger band gap of these semiconductors, the operating voltage of the LED increases.
Blue LEDs 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 In/Ga fraction in the InGaN quantum wells, the light emission can in theory be varied from violet to amber.
Aluminium gallium nitride (AlGaN) of varying Al/Ga 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 InGaN/GaN blue/green devices. If unalloyed GaN is used in this case to form the active quantum well layers, the device emits near-ultraviolet light with a peak wavelength centred around 365 nm. Green LEDs manufactured from the InGaN/GaN system are far more efficient and brighter than green LEDs produced with non-nitride material systems, but practical devices still exhibit efficiency too low for high-brightness applications. 041b061a72