How Efficient are Light Emitting Diodes – LEDS?

Almost all commercial and residential establishments are moving over to light emitting diode (LED) illumination, as they are guaranteed to be more efficient compared to other forms of lighting such as incandescent and fluorescent. Unless designed with care, LEDs can suffer from premature failure due to thermal issues. Under thermal stress, LEDs can permanently lose their brightness, while degrading much quicker than the manufacturer intended. That means designers and engineers need to balance the additional cost of emitters with the thermal design for providing not only an elegant design solution, but also the long life that solid state lighting promises.

With roughly 50% of the electrical energy produced worldwide being used for lighting, and the world population growing, the only two alternatives to meet the growing needs of energy are to either generate more or to make more efficient use of what we already have. Generating more energy can take several years to plan and install power plants, but improving the efficiency of lighting can effectively mitigate the rising trend of power consumption.

Providing over 100 lumens per watt, LEDs are being increasingly used for a large selection of general applications. When converting fixture designs for incandescent bulbs to those for LEDs, engineers faced issues because of the difference of their thermal characteristics. For instance, manufacturers publish the life curves for LEDs as a function of temperature, while fixture designers do not know how to handle the information.

Incandescent bulbs were actually heaters that emitted some visible light. Nearly 90% of the light emitted by incandescent bulbs fell into the region beyond 700 nanometers—the infrared region—invisible to the human eye, but perceptible as heat. This would often cause problems in the kitchen, with waste IR light promoting premature spoilage in food illuminated by incandescent bulbs.

LEDs produce light via a different mechanism. When electrons in the LED junction cross over a forbidden energy zone called band-gap and combine with holes, they produce light because the electrons lose energy. Physicists tailor the energy by adjusting the width of the band-gap, thereby producing various frequencies of light. For instance, a white LED actually generates intense blue or Ultra Violet light, which then excites a phosphor placed in its optical path, thereby turning it into white light.

However, the process of converting electrons to light photons within the junction of the LED is not a perfect one. A vast majority of the photons created within the junction is never emitted and ultimately recombine to produce waste heat. Additionally, Stokes Shift, the phenomenon that shifts the frequency of the LED emission in the phosphor to produce white light, also generates waste heat. Waste heat from both of these mechanisms must be removed from the LED junction to prevent severe damage.

Unlike their incandescent predecessors, LEDs rarely fail catastrophically. Their slow degradation affects the photon emission mechanism, resulting in a dimming effect. Engineers use two industry end-of-life metrics for measuring the life of LEDs. One is the L70 or time taken to reach 70% of original emission, and the other is L50 or time taken to reach 50% of the original emission. The industry uses the L70 point as the useful life of an LED fixture or bulb.