Overview - Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)


Xmultiple's Engineering Department

LEDs must be connected the correct way round, the diagram may be labelled a or + for anode and k or - for cathode (yes, it really is k, not c, for cathode!). The cathode is the short lead and there may be a slight flat on the body of round LEDs. If you can see inside the LED the cathode is the larger electrode (but this is not an official identification method).
LEDs can be damaged by heat when soldering, but the risk is small unless you are very slow. No special precautions are needed for soldering most LEDs.

Testing an LED

Never connect an LED directly to a battery or power supply. LEDs will be destroyed almost instantly because too much current will pass through and burn it out. LEDs must have a resistor in series to limit the current to a safe value, for quick testing purposes a 1k resistor is suitable for most LEDs if your supply voltage is 12V or less. Remember to connect the LED the correct direction before inserting into a printed circuit board.

Colours of LEDs

LEDs are available in red, orange, amber, yellow, green, blue and white. Blue and white LEDs are much more expensive than the other colours. The colour of an LED is determined by the semiconductor material, not by the colouring of the 'package' (the plastic body). LEDs of all colours are available in uncoloured packages which may be diffused (milky) or clear (often described as 'water clear'). The coloured packages are also available as diffused (the standard type) or transparent. Tri-colour LEDs

The most popular type of tri-colour LED has a red and a green LED combined in one package with three leads. They are called tri-colour because mixed red and green light appears to be yellow and this is produced when both the red and green LEDs are on.
The diagram shows the construction of a tri-colour LED. Note the different lengths of the three leads. The centre lead (k) is the common cathode for both LEDs, the outer leads (a1 and a2) are the anodes to the LEDs allowing each one to be lit separately, or both together to give the third colour.
Bi-colour LEDs

A bi-colour LED has two LEDs wired in 'inverse parallel' (one forwards, one backwards) combined in one package with two leads. Only one of the LEDs can be lit at one time and they are less useful than the tri-colour LEDs described above.
Sizes, Shapes and Viewing angles of LEDs

LEDs are available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The 'standard' LED has a round cross-section of 5mm diameter and this is probably the best type for general use, but 3mm round LEDs are also popular. Round cross-section LEDs are frequently used and they are very easy to install on boxes by drilling a hole of the LED diameter, adding a spot of glue will help to hold the LED if necessary. LED clips are also available to secure LEDs in holes. Other cross-section shapes include square, rectangular and triangular.

As well as a variety of colours, sizes and shapes, LEDs also vary in their viewing angle. This tells you how much the beam of light spreads out. Standard LEDs have a viewing angle of 60X but others have a narrow beam of 30X or less.

How to Calculate an LED resistor value

An LED must have a resistor connected in series to limit the current through the LED, otherwise it will burn out almost instantly.
The resistor value, R is given by:
R = (VS - VL) / I
VS = supply voltage
VL = LED voltage (usually 2V, but 4V for blue and white LEDs)
I = LED current (e.g. 20mA), this must be less than the maximum permitted

If the calculated value is not available choose the nearest standard resistor value which is greater, so that the current will be a little less than you chose. In fact you may wish to choose a greater resistor value to reduce the current (to increase battery life for example) but this will make the LED less bright.

For example If the supply voltage VS = 9V, and you have a red LED (VL = 2V), requiring a current I = 20mA = 0.020A,
R = (9V - 2V) / 0.02A = 350, so choose 390 (the nearest standard value which is greater).
Working out the LED resistor formula using Ohm's law

Ohm's law says that the resistance of the resistor, R = V/I, where:
V = voltage across the resistor (= VS - VL in this case)
I = the current through the resistor
So R = (VS - VL) / I



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