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Epitaxy and Device Design for High Efficiency Blue LEDs and Laser Diodes


The (Al,Ga,In)N materials system has impacted energy efficiency on the world-wide scale through its application to blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which were invented and developed in the 1990s. Since then, cost reductions and performance improvements have brought GaN-based LEDs into the mainstream, supplanting outdated lighting technology and improving energy efficiency.

One of the main challenges that still limits commercial LEDs, however, is “efficiency droop,” which refers to the reduction in efficiency as the input current density (and with it, the carrier density) increases. This phenomenon especially plagues high power LEDs, which operate in the current density range of 100-1000 A/cm2.

Few practical options exist to directly eliminate efficiency droop, however we investigated two complementary approaches to circumvent the phenomenon. The first “high power solution” would employ blue laser diodes as the engine of solid state white lighting in lieu of LEDs. When laser diodes reach the threshold current density for stimulated emission, the carrier density in the active region clamps, simultaneously clamping droop. The wall plug efficiency of the laser diodes can then continue to rise as input current density increases until another effect (usually thermal) overrides it. The second “low power solution” maintains the blue LED as the solid state lighting engine, but shifts the operation point to low current density (and low carrier density) where efficiency droop effects are negligible and other thermal and electrical constraints in the device design are alleviated, enabling designs for high wall-plug efficiency. Both approaches to circumventing efficiency droop are likely to find a home in diverse future technologies and applications for lighting and displays.

The challenge to produce high performance blue laser diodes was approached from an m-plane epitaxy platform. m-Plane is a non-polar orientation of the wurtzite (Al,Ga,In)N, which is free from deleterious polarization-related electric fields in the growth direction. m Plane is a naturally occurring crystal plane with high material gain due to its non-degenerate valence band structure, and thus should be well-suited for laser diode applications. However, m plane blue emission suffers from low indium uptake and broad spontaneous emission linewidth. The use of surface “double miscut” was investigated to improve the local step structure and morphology, resulting in higher indium uptake, narrower linewidth and higher peak power in the blue spectrum.

The complementary challenge to improve the wall-plug efficiency for LEDs at low power operation focuses primarily on improved light extraction efficiency and low voltage operation. The main sources of extraction efficiency losses in typical c-plane blue LEDs on patterned sapphire substrates are absorption on the metal contacts, in the current spreading layer and on the metallic reflector, which also doubles as the heat sink. With the relaxed constraints at low power operation, new designs become possible. High light extraction designs were vetted with ray tracing software prior to experimental implementation. The highest demonstrated wall-plug efficiency resulting from these designs was 78.2%, and was accompanied by a greater than unity electrical efficiency (1.03) resulting from thermoelectric pumping, suggesting a pathway for 100% or greater wall-plug efficiency.

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