Groovy LEDs make brighter lights

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have made semiconductor LEDs more than seven times brighter by fitting them in an etched cavity.

Researchers at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made semiconductor light-emitting diodes (LEDs) more than seven times brighter. They achieved this by etching nanoscale grooves in a surrounding cavity to guide scattered light in one direction. The nanostructured devices may have applications in areas such as in biomedical imaging, where LED brightness is crucial.

Semiconductor LEDs are used increasingly in displays and many other applications, in part because they can efficiently produce light across a broad spectrum, from near-infrared to the ultraviolet. However, they typically emit only about two per cent of the light in the desired direction – perpendicular to the diode surface. Far more light skims uselessly below the surface of the LED, because of the mismatch in refraction between air and the semiconductor.

The NIST nanostructured cavity boosts useful LED emission to about 41 per cent and may be cheaper and more effective for some applications than conventional post-processing LED shaping and packaging methods that attempt to redirect light.

The NIST team fabricated their own infrared LEDs consisting of gallium arsenide packed with quantum dots of assorted sizes made of indium gallium arsenide. Quantum dots are nanoscale semiconductor particles that efficiently emit light at a colour determined by the exact size of the particle. The LEDs were backed with an alumina mirror to reflect the light emitted backwards. The periphery of each LED was turned into a cavity etched with circular grooves, in which the light reflects and interferes with itself in an optimal geometry.

The researchers experimented with different numbers and dimensions of grooves. The brightest output was attained with 10 grooves, each about 240 nanometres (nm) wide and 150 nm deep, and spaced 40 nm apart.