Paul Decloedt_ONS-webIn recent years significant advances in high-brightness LEDs (HB-LEDs) have given designers the opportunity to replace conventional incandescent, fluorescent and halogen technologies with more reliable and energy-efficient LED-based alternatives. As a result, solid-state lighting has seen considerable uptake in automotive, digital signage, and architectural applications, as well as the illumination of our city streets.

Tim Kaske_ONS-webHowever, when it comes to controlling and driving these LEDs there has been considerable inconsistency in the approaches employed. Many lighting system designs, for example, have used or modified existing solutions that did not take into account the specialist needs of HB-LEDs. If designers are to optimize the benefits that these devices can bring, careful consideration must be given to the techniques used for driving and controlling these devices.

A system perspective
The main elements of a solid state HB-LED lighting system are the LED emitters, power conversion, control and drive, thermal management, and the necessary optics. Without all of these elements being adequately addressed, the subsequent LED lighting system is unlikely to be optimized. For instance, if the issue of focusing and manipulation of the light source through the use of lenses/light guides is not taken care of, the illumination specifications for that application will not be met.

Similarly, if the thermal management aspect is not considered, the lighting system’s operating life will be reduced. The power and driving aspects are equally vital to the long term operation of the lighting system. The supply voltage source in HB-LED lighting design is dependent on the type of application being tackled. For architectural and buildings illumination the voltage source will normally be AC mains. Outdoor domestic lighting might come from an unregulated supply such as a solar panel. In automotive scenarios, the power source is typically a 12V battery.

Driving LED emitters from a voltage source without some form of power conversion is to be avoided, as normal fluctuations in the voltage can result in dramatic differences in LED current. Factors such as the very steep V/I curve and a wide variation in forward voltage from lot-to-lot with LED devices necessitates the inclusion of an isolated or non-isolated power conversion stage.

Regulating the current 
One of the primary functions of the LED driver circuitry is to control the current, regardless of input conditions and forward voltage variations, across a range of operating circumstances. The driver circuit must meet the application requirements in terms of efficiency, current tolerance, form factor, cost and safety. At the same time, the chosen approach must be easy to implement and robust enough to meet the environmental extremes of the specific application.

The three basic driver/regulator topologies are buck (step-down), boost (step-up) and buck-boost (also known as single-ended primary inductor conversion or SEPIC). With buck circuits the minimum input voltage (Vin) is always greater than the maximum voltage of the LED string under all operating conditions, while boost circuits are used when the maximum Vin is always less than the minimum voltage of the LED string. SEPIC techniques are used where the input and output voltages overlap.

Advances in coupled inductors are making these solutions easier to implement without incurring size penalties when compared with buck or boost topologies. Indeed, when fully understood, SEPIC can offer many advantages over the more frequently used topologies, delivering higher efficiencies levels, smaller form factors, and lower costs.

Likewise, LED current regulation solutions can be broadly categorized as follows:

1) Resistors: These represent the simplest, lowest cost approach to current regulation. In reality they do not deliver a practical solution as they are voltage-dependent, resulting in fluctuation of LED brightness. They also necessitate the costly and time-consuming practice of binning of LEDs, as well as leading to designs with poor efficiency levels.

2) Linear regulators: Easy to design in, these can provide effective current regulation/fold back. With an external current set-point, linear regulator ICs act as a ‘mid-range’ solution to current regulation in HB-LED lighting designs. However, they are often viewed as being too power consuming and having efficiency levels which are too low. The poor efficiency of linear regulators will normally mean that there are thermal management issues to contend with too. This typically results in the inclusion of a heatsink mechanism that takes up space and adds to the bill of materials for the design.

3) Switching regulators: These are the most costly and technically complex solution for LED current control. Unlike linear regulators and simple resistors, they are susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI), giving the designer an additional design hurdle to negotiate. Nevertheless, they are highly efficient, totally voltage independent and bring brightness control functionality to the application. Switching regulators are the only feasible option for medium to high power applications or in cases where wide input voltage ranges are involved.

4) Constant current regulators provide a simpler and lower cost solution compared to linear and switching regulators, yet offer significant performance benefits when compared to resistors.

ON SAR2406.1_Fig_1-webConstant current regulation
Figure 1 illustrates the basic elements of a constant current regulator IC.

As with linear and switching regulators, constant current regulators can maintain constant brightness over a wide voltage range. They can also protect the LEDs from over drive at higher input voltages and significantly reduce or completely eliminate the need for costly and often problematic binning. And because the latest integrated CCR devices also offer wide input ranges, they can provide the headroom to accommodate a wide range of fluctuating supply voltages to support deployment across a diverse variety of applications.

As the emitted light from an LED is proportional to the average current passing through it, constant current regulators can also deliver the capability to dim the light output. Dimming is achieved by either analog or digital pulse width modulation (PWM) techniques. The analog approach combines an input PWM signal with the feedback voltage resulting in a reduced average output current. The digital approach uses the input PWM signal to inhibit switching of the regulator and reduce the average output current.  The typical dimming frequency is somewhere between 200 Hz and 1000 Hz, as the human eye cannot see slight variations over 200 Hz.

ONSAR2406.1_Fig_2-webThe latest constant current regulator ICs, such as those from ON Semiconductor, can accommodate supply voltages in excess of 40V and down to 3V, offer current outputs from 20mA to 1.5A, and are fully compatible with step-down (buck), step-up (boost), step-up/down (buck/boost) or SEPIC topologies. Figure 2, for example, shows a typical SEPIC application circuit based on the NCP3066 device.

Furthermore, if the LED string being driven has a current requirement beyond the capability of a single regulator, such devices can also be used as a controller with an external switch to deliver higher output current.

Thanks to their enhanced energy efficiency, long-life operation and design versatility HB-LEDs are likely to become the principal means of providing illumination to a wide range of end applications. Now, the development of targeted constant current regulators ICs is helping designers to get the most from these LED technologies in terms of cost, performance and reliability requirements.

About ON Semiconductor
With its global logistics network and strong product portfolio, ON Semiconductor (NASDAQ: ONNN) is a preferred supplier of high performance, energy efficient, silicon solutions to customers in the power supply, automotive, communication, computer, consumer, medical, industrial, mobile phone, and military/aerospace markets. The company’s broad portfolio includes power, analog, DSP, mixed-signal, advance logic, clock management, non-volatile memory and standard component devices. Global corporate headquarters are located in Phoenix, Arizona. The company operates a network of manufacturing facilities, sales offices and design centers in key markets throughout North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific regions. For more information, visit