The LED consists of a chip of semiconducting material 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 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 thus 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 usually recombine by a non-radiative transition, which produces no optical emission, because these are indirect band gap materials. The materials used for the LED have a direct band gap with energies corresponding to near-infrared, visible, or near-ultraviolet light.

LED development began with infrared and red devices made with gallium arsenide. Advances in materials science have enabled making devices with ever-shorter wavelengths, emitting light in a variety of colors.

LEDs are usually built on an n-type substrate, with an 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.

Most materials used for LED production have very high refractive indices. This means that much light will be reflected back into the material at the material/air surface interface. Thus, light extraction in LEDs is an important aspect of LED production, subject to much research and development.

Refractive index

Idealized example of light emission cones in a semiconductor, for a single point-source emission zone. The left illustration is for a fully translucent wafer, while the right illustration shows the half-cones formed when the bottom layer is fully opaque. The light is actually emitted equally in all directions from the point-source, so the areas between the cones shows the large amount of trapped light energy that is wasted as heat.
The light emission cones of a real LED wafer are far more complex than a single point-source light emission. The light emission zone is typically a two-dimensional plane between the wafers. Every atom across this plane has an individual set of emission cones. Drawing the billions of overlapping cones is impossible, so this is a simplified diagram showing the extents of all the emission cones combined. The larger side cones are clipped to show the interior features and reduce image complexity; they would extend to the opposite edges of the two-dimensional emission plane.

Bare uncoated semiconductors such as silicon exhibit a very high refractive index relative to open air, which prevents passage of photons arriving at sharp angles relative to the air-contacting surface of the semiconductor. This property affects both the light-emission efficiency of LEDs as well as the light-absorption efficiency of photovoltaic cells. The refractive index of silicon is 3.96 (590 nm), while air is 1.0002926.

In general, a flat-surface uncoated LED semiconductor chip will emit light only perpendicular to the semiconductor’s surface, and a few degrees to the side, in a cone shape referred to as the light cone, cone of light, or the escape cone.The maximum angle of incidence is referred to as the critical angle. When this angle is exceeded, photons no longer escape the semiconductor but are instead reflected internally inside the semiconductor crystal as if it were a mirror.

Internal reflections can escape through other crystalline faces, if the incidence angle is low enough and the crystal is sufficiently transparent to not re-absorb the photon emission. But for a simple square LED with 90-degree angled surfaces on all sides, the faces all act as equal angle mirrors. In this case most of the light can not escape and is lost as waste heat in the crystal.

A convoluted chip surface with angled facets similar to a jewel or fresnel lens can increase light output by allowing light to be emitted perpendicular to the chip surface while far to the sides of the photon emission point.

The ideal shape of a semiconductor with maximum light output would be a microsphere with the photon emission occurring at the exact center, with electrodes penetrating to the center to contact at the emission point. All light rays emanating from the center would be perpendicular to the entire surface of the sphere, resulting in no internal reflections. A hemispherical semiconductor would also work, with the flat back-surface serving as a mirror to back-scattered photons.

Transition coatings

After the doping of the wafer, it is cut apart into individual dies. Each die is commonly called a chip.

Many LED semiconductor chips are encapsulated or potted in clear or colored molded plastic shells. The plastic shell has three purposes:

  1. Mounting the semiconductor chip in devices is easier to accomplish.
  2. The tiny fragile electrical wiring is physically supported and protected from damage.
  3. The plastic acts as a refractive intermediary between the relatively high-index semiconductor and low-index open air.

The third feature helps to boost the light emission from the semiconductor by acting as a diffusing lens, allowing light to be emitted at a much higher angle of incidence from the light cone than the bare chip is able to emit alone.

Efficiency and operational parameters

Typical indicator LEDs are designed to operate with no more than 30–60 milliwatts (mW) of electrical power. Around 1999, Philips Lumileds introduced power LEDs capable of continuous use at one watt. These LEDs used much larger semiconductor die sizes to handle the large power inputs. Also, the semiconductor dies were mounted onto metal slugs to allow for heat removal from the LED die.

One of the key advantages of LED-based lighting sources is high luminous efficacy. White LEDs quickly matched and overtook the efficacy of standard incandescent lighting systems. In 2002, Lumileds made five-watt LEDs available with a luminous efficacy of 18–22 lumens per watt (lm/W). For comparison, a conventional incandescent light bulb of 60–100 watts emits around 15 lm/W, and standard fluorescent lights emit up to 100 lm/W.