Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quickfire Question: How do LEDs work?

LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes are very common devices used in a wide variety of applications from some street signage, power indicators, transmitters in remote controls and even LED torches. They are very efficient devices, which much like sodium lamps, convert most of the current passing through them into light, with very little loss as heat, but how do they work?

All LEDs are made from semiconductor materials - materials which have conducting properties somewhere between insulators (like glass) and conductors (like metals). Semiconductors can be carefully constructed to perform a variety of applications, such as diodes, which only allow current to pass through in one direction, to transistors - which either allow current to pass, or stop it, depending on the voltage at a "gate", solar cells and much more elaborate structures ranging from logic circuits all the way up to computer chips.

Like the previously mentioned diodes, LEDs only allow current to pass through in one direction, and when the current passes through, light is emitted. There are a couple of ways that LEDs can be constructed, I will concentrate on the simplest.

Semiconductors can be "doped" with other materials, which can either donate electrons (n-type semiconductors), or can accept electrons (p-type semiconductors). The former have extra electrons which can flow through the semiconductor from the negative to the positive terminal, and the latter have "holes" which are like positively charged electrons, that flow from the positive to the negative terminal. When the two meet they can recombine, and release energy in the form of light.

By varying the dopants, we can manipulate the wavelength of light that is emitted. Other methods of varying the colour are more elaborate, and involve the use of quantum tunneling, different sorts of junctions, and even adding additional materials. As we can see, the spectrum of conventional LEDs tends to be very pure:

producing a very limited spread of colour in each LED, however the addition of other chemicals such as phosphors, can "down convert" high frequency light such as blue, and re-emit that light in a broader spread of wavelengths. This is a common method of producing white LEDs.

More recently another type of LED has been developed, known as an Organic LED, or OLED. In place of inorganic materials such as Indium and Gallium, OLEDs use carbon based chemicals (hence organic) that emit light. The semiconductor properties of these materials are similar, though the emission is somewhat different, having a much broader spectrum. Some of the details and issues surrounding OLEDs will be covered in a later post.

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