A Complete Overview
LCD displays don’t emit light by themselves. They need a light source, and LED backlights are now dominating the market. In this article, Orient Display’s Bill Cheung provides a complete overview of LED backlight technology, discussing different types, driver technologies, color deviation, brightness options and more.
LCD (liquid crystal display) has long been the dominant technology in the display world. Certainly, there are some emerging competing display technologies—such as OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode)  and micro-LED—that have the potential to threaten LCD’s position in the market. But both are currently only used for niche and high-end markets.
An LCD display can’t emit light by itself. In order to have an LCD display  used in a dim environment, a backlight has to be used as the light source. There are a few different technologies that are able to produce backlight ranging from EL (electroluminescent), CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) and LED (light emitting diode). However, a breakthrough in blue LED technology by Shuji Nakamura  led to LED backlights dominating the market.
One of the greatest benefits of LED backlighting is its long lifetime. Normally, LED lifetime can be measured with half-life when the original brightness decreases by 50%. With different LED chip manufacturing materials, technologies and environment used, the LED life can vary from 20,000 hours to well over 100,000 hours.
LED backlights have low power consumption and produce much less heat than other backlight technologies, which extends the durability and performance of the other display components. Furthermore, this reduces the risk of fire and explosion. LED backlights are also driven with DC (direct current) and low voltage (can be as low as 1.5V), which are good for battery drive and emit no interference to the circuitry. With the development of LED technology, the LED chips become small. So, it is possible to produce very thin backlight (0.5mm thick or thinner).
COLORS AND STRUCTURES
Although white LED is the most popular color, LED backlight can be made into different single colors, bi-colors and tri-colors  (Figure 1) (Figure 2). With RGB LED backlight color mixing, normal 8 color LED backlight can be produced (Figure 3).
LED backlight can be classified as bottom (array) lit and side (edge) lit backlights, and each have their plusses and minuses. The advantages of the bottom lit (array) backlight are that it is uniform and bright. Its disadvantage is high current draw, thickness, heat dissipation and cost. Meanwhile, the advantages of the side lit backlight are its thinness, flexibility in design, low current and lower cost. The main disadvantage of the side lit backlight is its non-uniformity—hot spots can be seen from most of the side lit backlight from certain angle. Figure 4 compares the bottom lit and side (edge) lit backlight LCD types.
Now let’s look at LED backlight structures. An LED backlight can be simplified into layers starting with a LED chip, light guide, diffusor and reflector (Figure 5). This is the lowest cost structure. Except for some very low current efficiency LCD displays—such as utility meters, battery-powered clock, watch, GPS and so on—most LCD displays need backlights to be visible in the dim lighting. Most often the backlight is actually at the back of the LCD. In rare cases, this light can be done as front light. The traditional LCD structure with LED backlight shown in Figure 6.
LED BACKLIGHT DRIVING
Now let’s look at the various options for driving LED backlights.
Direct current driving: This is the simple and low-cost way to drive a LED backlight, however, be mindful of the current limit otherwise the LED life can deteriorate quickly. The solution is simply to add a current limiting resistor in the circuit. Current limitation resistors value calculation formula: R = (V0 – Vf)/If. Also be mindful of reverse drive, otherwise, the LED chip can break down easily.
PWM (pulse width modulation): For more on PWM, see the link at reference .
LED driver with constant current: The advantage of constant current LED driver is that it will be the best option to use when building your own fixture or working with high powered LED because they avoid violating the maximum current specified for the LEDs, therefore avoiding burnout/thermal runaway. They are easier for designers to control applications, and help create a more consistent bright light.
LED driver with constant voltage: Using a constant voltage LED driver makes sense when using an LED or array that has been specified to take a certain voltage. This is helpful because constant voltage is a much more familiar technology for design and installation engineers. Moreover, the cost of these systems can be lower, especially in larger scale applications.
There are a variety of ways to connect a backlight and LCD module electrically. It can be done with wires that are soldered on the LCD or LCD module. It can be connected using pins, which can be soldered onto the LCD or LCD module. A third way is to use a FPC (flexible printed circuit), which can be soldered or plugged in a ZIF (zero insertion force) connector. And finally, there is the connector method. With this method you use connectors which can be plugged into mating connectors.
WHITE LED COLOR DEVIATION
As the LED is manufactured via the semiconductor process, there are some color deviations that can be a quality control issue. One way to solve the issue is through a process of selection and sorting after manufacturing the LEDs. The LEDs are sorted into different categories or bins. How this sorting is done and what each bin actually contains is defined differently by each LED manufacturer. The backlight manufacturer can choose from which bin they take the LEDs for backlight color hue.
Some customers might request very fine binning by the LED manufacturer, which can be very expensive since only a very small percentage of the LEDs manufactured would meet the requirements for a specific bin. Figure 7 shows an example of the bin selection from Nichia, the most renowned LED manufacturer in the world. Figure 8 shows the 1931 CIE chromaticity diagram. And Figure 9 shows the color deviations (bin definition) by Cree for a qualified production lot.
In actual LED backlight production, most customers will accept the LED color for two big categories: white with yellowish (warm) and white with bluish (cold). Of course, the LED brightness will also need to be defined. For general application, most customers will accept a brightness tolerance of 70 percent.
LED BACKLIGHT LIFE ESTIMATION
It is extremely hard to estimate the LED backlight lifetime or MTBF (mean time between failures) because there are so many variable factors. However, the most important is the temperature on the LED chip. The factors that can affect the LED chip temperature include: surrounding temperature, humidity, driving current, voltage, backlight design (how many LED chips to be used, how close to each other, heatsink design), backlight manufacturing process (type and thickness of adhesive), quality of the LED chip and so forth.
To test the LED life is also very time consuming, requiring at least 1,000 hours. That’s the reason why no LED manufacturers can guarantee LED backlight life and most backlight manufacturers also are reluctant to provide lifespan data. As for LCD manufacturers, they need to discuss it with the customer to understand the applications and provide suggestions. It is normal that the LCD datasheet lists the typical life time and avoids providing a minimum lifetime. From Figure 10, we can see that over room temperature, the current needs to decrease as the temperature increases. At over 85°C, the LED is not usable.
To estimate LED backlight lifetime, you can use ballpark estimation or theoretical calculation. Let’s first examine the ballpark method. To take white LED as example, the nominal biasing current is 20mA. If we use a safe lifetime estimation, we can estimate using Table 1.
Now let’s use the theoretical calculation approach. As we previously mentioned, LED life is affected by a lot of factors: surrounding temperature, humidity, driving current, voltage, backlight design (how many LED chips to be used, how close to each other, heatsink designed), backlight manufacturing process (type and thickness of adhesive), quality of the LED chip and so on. LED chip manufacturers are not willing to give absolute values of LED chip lifetimes, but there is a theoretical calculation that we can use.
Temperature is the determination factor for LED chip life, while LED chip manufacturers use LED junction temperature to predict LED chip life more accurately. An example is:
Where Tj is PN junction temperature (°C); Ts1 is solder temperature cathode side (°C); Rthj-s1 is thermal resistance of junction to Ts1 measuring point (°C/W); W is IF × VF; and, for Nichia NS6W083A Tj Max = 120°C, Rthj-s1 = 10°C/W.
Based on that calculation of the measured data, the lifetime can be obtained in the Figure 11.
LED BACKLIGHT BRIGHTNESS
Finally, let’s look at ways to increase LED backlight brightness. There are many ways to increase LED backlight brightness, but all these measures are balanced with performance and cost. Here are some of the methods:
- Drive the LED harder with higher current (lifetime might be affected)
- Using more LED chips (higher cost, higher power consumption, voltage or current, heat management)
- Using high-efficiency LED chips (higher cost)
- Better designed light guide, reflector or diffuser (higher cost)
- For the LCD module side, using better aperture opening ratio, anti-reflection coating on surface, optical bonding. This results in higher cost. Actually, this measure is not to increase LED backlight brightness directly but to increase to the visibility to users.
- Using 3M film : BEF (brightness enhancement film or prism film), DBEF (dual brightness enhancement film), DBEF II, ESR (enhanced specular reflector) and so on. These increase costs a lot, but these high-performance films are essential in tight power management like mobile phones and other battery-powered applications.
Orient Display | www.orientdisplay.com
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • MAY 2021 #370 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article
Bill Cheung is an engineering lead and marketing manager at Orient Display, an LCD and display technology provider with over two decades of industry experience in delivering cutting edge display solutions. You can browse Orient Display's knowledge base  to learn more about LCDs.