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What is an LED?


In the simplest terms, a light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor device that emits light when an electric current is passed through it. Light is produced when the particles that carry the current (known as electrons and holes) combine together within the semiconductor material.

Since light is generated within the solid semiconductor material, LEDs are described as solid-state devices. The term solid-state lighting, which also encompasses organic LEDs (OLEDs), distinguishes this lighting technology from other sources that use heated filaments (incandescent and tungsten halogen lamps) or gas discharge (fluorescent lamps).

Different colors
Inside the semiconductor material of the LED, the electrons and holes are contained within energy bands. The separation of the bands (i.e. the bandgap) determines the energy of the photons (light particles) that are emitted by the LED.

The photon energy determines the wavelength of the emitted light, and hence its color. Different semiconductor materials with different bandgaps produce different colors of light. The precise wavelength (color) can be tuned by altering the composition of the light-emitting, or active, region.

LEDs are comprised of compound semiconductor materials, which are made up of elements from group III and group V of the periodic table (these are known as III-V materials). Examples of III-V materials commonly used to make LEDs are gallium arsenide (GaAs) and gallium phosphide (GaP).

Until the mid-90s LEDs had a limited range of colors, and in particular commercial blue and white LEDs did not exist. The development of LEDs based on the gallium nitride (GaN) material system completed the palette of colors and opened up many new applications.

Main LED materials
The main semiconductor materials used to manufacture LEDs are:

  • Indium gallium nitride (InGaN): blue, green and ultraviolet high-brightness LEDs

  • Aluminum gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP): yellow, orange and red high-brightness LEDs

  • Aluminum gallium arsenide (AlGaAs): red and infrared LEDs

  • Gallium phosphide (GaP): yellow and green LEDs