Driving an IR LED: constant current source or not

If one uses an IR LED for remote control, it is generally unwise to hang that LED directly (with a series resistor ofcourse) on the Output pin of your Arduino (or other microcontroller). The I/O pin of an Arduino can deliver 20mA, which is generally enough for a regular LED, but IR LED’s usually have a taste for more current as they have to bridge a distance to the receiver (such as a TV).
There are basically two ways to drive an IR LED then: with a transistor (or a FET for that matter) that has the LED plus series resistor in the collector (or drain) line or with a constant current source.

Now ‘constant current source’ in this aspect is a bit odd as the LED will be switched on and off so the current is not constant, but it refers to the current that flows to the LED in ‘open’ state.

Both the regular ttansistor driver  and the constant current source have their pro’s and con’s sp lets discuss both.

IR-leddriverSuppose we want to drive 2 IR LED’s -say the IR204- from a 5 Volt source and we do that with a simple transistor driver as pictured to the right. As we want to drive then with 200mA a simple BC547 isnt enough so we have chosen for the  BC337. Around a collector current of 200mA the hFe is 80 and the Vcc is 0.7V.
That leads to the component values as pictured to the right, but the only value we really need to be concerned about is R1 that has a value of 6.5 Ohm at 0.26 Watt. One could use a 1/4 Watt transistor for that as the LED is not always on.


IR stroombronSuppose we want to do the same with a constant current source, as pictured in the  bottom figure to the right. Basically this needs 2 extra components (the 2 diodes) and a resistor in the emitter line rather than in the collector line.
The principle of a constant current source  probably is known: The two diodes keep the base of the transistor at 1.2V. Consequently the Emittor of the transistor is at 1.2-0.7=0.5Volt. Therefore the Current  through the transistor is defined by Ve/R1 and at a value of 2.5 that makes 200mA. The dissipation in the resistor is 0.5*0.2=0.1 Watt.

So what are the advantages of  the constant current source over the  simple transistor driver?
Well, there are a few:

  • The resistor can be of a lower wattage: 100mW vs 260mW. That might not seem such a big issue, but if you are driving a bigger current, that could be an issue.
  • Suppose you want to change the voltage? With the constant current source you just up the voltage and that is it. With the simple transistor driver you will need to re-calculate the series resistor, both in resistance as well in Wattage.
  • Same goes for adding more IR LED’s (as long as the supplied voltage allows it): no need to recalculate the value of R1
    So doesnt the simple transistor driver have any advantages?
  • It lacks two components
  • With the two IRLED’s it can still work with a voltage as low as 3.7 Volt, whereas The Constant Current source needs at least 4.2 Volt (if you use 2 IR LEDs).
  • If you are using 3.3 Volts both circuits can be used if you drop one IR LED. However should you still need 2 IR LED’s you are out of luck with the constant current source as it is  risky to put two LED’s  directly parallel if they are not exactly the same. With the simple transistor driver it is always possible to put two or more different IR LED’s parallel when they each have their own  series resistor.

So, what is best for you, depends on your situation. If you are exactly sure what you are building, you know what your number of LED’s needs to be and what Vcc they will be getting, the simple transistor driver is probably best.
If you just want a more universal module that you can use in various situations, then the constant current source is probably better.

“You forgot to mention the constant current circuit uses less energy”
Now there are  a few fairy tales about the constant current source vs the simple driver. One of them is particularly persistent and it claims that the constant current source ‘uses less energy’ than the transistor driver.
That of course is complete bogus. It is probably based on the perception that  -as shown above-  a lot of energy is dissipated in the series resistor R1 and less in the emittor resistor (0.26 Watt vs 0.1 Watt in our example). That is a complete misunderstanding of the formula P=I*V.
If you just look at the Supply voltage (5 Volt) and the current that flows (200mA), the power usage of both circuits is 1 Watt. Sure, it is true that of that 1 Watt in one case 0.26 Watt is used by the series resistor as opposed to  0.1 Watt in the emittor resistor, but that doesnt change the overall use of 1 Watt  by both circuits.
So there is more power available for the IR LED !”   Nope, we have constructed both circuits  such that the LED’s get 200mA. Over 3 Volts (as they are in Series)  that means that the LED’s dissipate 0.6 Watt in both circuits.
Ah see 0.6 Watt + 0.26 Watt = 0.86 Watt while 0.6 Watt + 0.1 Watt =0.7 Watt, so the constant current source IS using less energy
Nope, as said before  both circuits  use 5*0.2 = 1 Watt. The difference of the 0.26-0.1=0.16 Watt is in the transistor. In the Simple driver the transistor dissipates (1-0.86=) 0.14 Watt  but in the constant current source the transistor dissipates (1-0.7=) 0.3 Watt.
The 0.14 Watt dissipation in the transistor also follows from Vce*Ic=0.7*0.2=0.14mW. Now ofcourse the believers in the fairy tale will say:
“But the same goes for the Vce*Ic in the constant current circuit that also uses 0.14 Watt and not 0.3 Watt

Again wrong and it illustrates the complete misunderstanding of what a constant current source does. It keeps the current constant and it does that by changing the resistance of the Vce pathway. So the Vce of 0.7 Volt is for that transistor to be in full saturation and that is exactly that that transistor is not


Power LED drivers

R2 determines the current.
– LED current is approximately equal to: 0.5 / R2
– R3 power: the power dissipated by the resistor is approximately: 0.25 / R2.
choose a resistor value at least 2x the power calculated so the resistor does not get burning hot. so for 700mA LED current: R2 = 0.5 / 0.7 = 0.71 ohms. closest standard resistor is 0.75 ohms. R2 power = 0.25 / 0.71 = 0.35 watts. we’ll need at least a 1/2 watt rated resistor.

The design of this LED driver is very simple and probably can be found in many variations on the interenet: T2 operates in linear mode and acts as a variable resistor that controls the current through the LED’s. R1 pulls-up the gate of T2 so that T2 starts up in its conductive state.
As the current begins to flow through the LED’s, T2, and R2, the voltage drop across R2 increases until it is high enough to switch on T1, and in so doing starts to pull the gate of T2 to ground.
This causes T2 to increase its resistance, which decreases current flow through itself, the LED’s, and R2, which decreases the voltage drop across R2, which causes T1 to let T2’s gate float back toward positive supply, thus increasing the current flow. Within a few milliseconds, the current flow stabilizes around a specific set point determined by the value of R2. The required supply voltage overhead is only about 0,6-1.2 volts, less than half of what for instance an LM317 regulator circuit requires.

As the value of R2 is based on the transition emitter-base voltage of T1, calculating it is easy. Most conventional silicon general-purpose NPN transistors switch fully at around 0.7VDC and start to transition from off to on at 0.56-0.58VDC. Assuming a transition voltage of 0.58VDC and a target load current of 320mA, the math is as follows (Ohms law):

R = V / I
R = 0.58VDC / 0.320A
R = 1.8 Ohms

Calculating the power dissipation for R2 under normal operation is done by Watt’s Law:

P = V * I
P = 0.58VDC * 0.320A
P = 0.185 Watt

In this case a quarter-watt resistor will work but a one-watt would have a safety margin of double. Using a design with an LM317 would lead to a much greater loss.

Choosing the input voltage is simple. In the example above I have used 3 LED’s, so you would have to total the forward voltage of those and add about 1.2 Volts:

For example:
Supply voltage for red LEDs=3*2.5V+1.2V=8.7V
Supply voltage for blue LEDs=3*3.8V+1.2V=12,6V

Perhaps you could even get away with an excess voltage of 0.6 instead of 1.2 Volts

The circuit has a disadvantage: It tries to push as much current through the load as it can as long as the voltage across R2 doesn’t exceed what starts to turn T1 on. So, for increased fault tolerance, the power rating for R2 could be selected based on the worst-case scenario of the maximum amount of available current flow in the event of a failure: a short across the LED’s as well as T2. For that, simply calculate dropping the supply power (voltage times current) across R1. It’s generally cheaper to simply use a fuse rated for just above the desired current set point, though, as a power supply providing 1A @ 12VDC would require a 15-watt resistor for R2 and this would be far more costly than a simple fuse.

Dissipation through the MOSFET under operating conditions is calculated the same way, only the voltage used in the calculation should be the supply voltage so that the heatsink selection will account for the worst-case scenario of a dead-shorted load at the target current. In the above example, assuming a 12VDC supply and 320mA current limit, the math works out as follows:

P = V * I
P = 12VDC * 0.750A
P = 3.84 watts

The IRF520 can handle 9.2A at 100VDC, and can dissipate 60 watts, so only a modest heatsink might be necessary.
To calculate dissipation through T2 with an accidentally shorted load, simply calculate the maximum supply power that T2 will see. If the supply is unregulated and capable of large current flows in short time spans (e.g., batteries), again a fuse would be wise as a last-ditch protective measure against catastrophic failures by blowing the circuit open so it cannot try to short the supply. If the set current is 320mA, a 500mA fuse in series with this circuit would be a wise, and relatively inexpensive, addition – all the more so for portable projects using lithium batteries, given how these like to catch fire (and for nonrechargeable lithium primaries, explode) when shorted.
The only limiting factors on load current and supply voltage relate to the components – using a suitable resistor for R2, this circuit can easily regulate up to a few amps of current in as little as one square inch of board space. R1 is not too critical: 1Megaohm will work and I also have seen 10k for R1 and 33Ohm for R2 driving 3 LED’s at a 12 V supply. A good way to calculate the value of R1 is: R1= (Vcc – 1.4)/(I/20)

If you need precision, the easiest way to get it is to build a test circuit with a fixed supply (12VDC is a great value, but use the desired or intended supply voltage if there’s a need to be precise), a dead short for a load, and a 100 ohm resistor for R2. This will set the current limit to about 6mA. Once the circuit is powered up, measure the drop across R2 to determine the exact transition voltage for T2, and calculate a specific value for R2 for your current requirements based on the math described earlier.

The extra parts for PWM support include T3, R3. Since T3 is a PNP transistor and R4 biases its base to ground, T3 starts up turned on and pulls T1’s gate to ground regardless of what T2 is doing, and this forces both T1 and T2 to turn off. R3 limits current draw to the PWM signal source. Provide a positive voltage greater than ~0.7VDC to T3 through R3, and T3 turns off, which allows the rest of the regulator to function as described above. In this manner a PWM signal can be used to vary the brightness of a load of power LEDs, or a simple on-off switch effect can be implemented by merely pulling T3’s base to positive supply with a few milliamperes of current. In this manner it would be possible to use the circuit as a self-current-limiting switch that only needs a tiny little low-current button as its actuator even though the load could be an amp or more.

For LEDs, this circuit is  very simple and wastes very little power if the source and load voltages are kept close to each other. Ideally this circuit works most efficiently with the supply being right at 1.5VDC above the ideal load voltage at the set current. The power source should be able to supply the required amount of current.

If the circuit is used for other loads than LED’s there will be some ripple depending on the type of load being powered, especially during power-up, but decoupling capacitors could be used to compensate for this. The circuit can be driven directly from any logic circuit (even at 3.3VDC).

The circuit can drive resistive, inductive, capacitive, or mixed loads. Capacitive loads may well experience slower charge times, as the circuit will clamp the charge current. Inductive loads should be paralleled with a reverse-polarity diode as is common with e.g. relais (and in some cases, also a proper snubber capacitor) to suppress any back-EMF from the load when power is disconnected so that the voltage spike won’t damage the MOSFET. (Most power MOSFETs include integrated protection diodes, but this should never be relied upon as the sole protection mechanism.)

A simple LED driver with a 2N3055

Even simpler
If you do not have a MOSFET, but you happen to maybe still have an old trusty 2N3055 (or similar like the TIP series) workhorse laying around, the following circuit is for you:

The current is determined by R2 and is:
I =0.8/R2

The maximum value of I in this driver is 10A. .
DC-power supply 9V-15V DC

R2 for 1W LED -2.7ohms 1W
R2 for 3W LED -1.5-ohms 1W
R2 for 5W LED -0.6-ohms or 2 x 1.2-ohms/1W in parallel

Using an LED
stroombron2 Instead of 2 diodes it is also possible to use an LED to set the reference voltage. Ofcourse for this one needs to know the exact voltage of the LED.
Calculations of the resistors is as follows:
R2=(Vs-Vd)/(Id*KB) in which Vd= the LED voltage, Id the current through the circuit LED and where K = 1.2 to 2 (so that R1 is low enough to ensure adequate IB)

LED Fade

* Code for cross-fading 3 LEDs, red, green and blue, or one tri-color LED, using PWM
* The program cross-fades slowly from red to green, green to blue, and blue to red
* Clay Shirky <clay.shirky@nyu.edu>

// Output
int redPin   = 9;   // Red LED,   connected to digital pin 9
int greenPin = 10;  // Green LED, connected to digital pin 10
int bluePin  = 11;  // Blue LED,  connected to digital pin 11

// Program variables
int redVal   = 255; // Variables to store the values to send to the pins
int greenVal = 1;   // Initial values are Red full, Green and Blue off
int blueVal  = 1;

int i = 0;     // Loop counter
int wait = 50; // 50ms (.05 second) delay; shorten for faster fades
int DEBUG = 0; // DEBUG counter; if set to 1, will write values back via serial

void setup()
pinMode(redPin,   OUTPUT);   // sets the pins as output
pinMode(greenPin, OUTPUT);
pinMode(bluePin,  OUTPUT);
if (DEBUG) {           // If we want to see the pin values for debugging…
Serial.begin(9600);  // …set up the serial ouput on 0004 style

// Main program
void loop()
i += 1;      // Increment counter
if (i < 255) // First phase of fades
redVal   -= 1; // Red down
greenVal += 1; // Green up
blueVal   = 1; // Blue low
else if (i < 509) // Second phase of fades
redVal    = 1; // Red low
greenVal -= 1; // Green down
blueVal  += 1; // Blue up
else if (i < 763) // Third phase of fades
redVal  += 1; // Red up
greenVal = 1; // Green low
blueVal -= 1; // Blue down
else // Re-set the counter, and start the fades again
i = 1;

analogWrite(redPin,   redVal);   // Write current values to LED pins
analogWrite(greenPin, greenVal);
analogWrite(bluePin,  blueVal);

if (DEBUG) { // If we want to read the output
DEBUG += 1;     // Increment the DEBUG counter
if (DEBUG > 10) // Print every 10 loops
DEBUG = 1;     // Reset the counter

Serial.print(i);       // Serial commands in 0004 style
Serial.print(“\t”);    // Print a tab
Serial.print(“R:”);    // Indicate that output is red value
Serial.print(redVal);  // Print red value
Serial.print(“\t”);    // Print a tab
Serial.print(“G:”);    // Repeat for green and blue…
Serial.println(blueVal); // println, to end with a carriage return
delay(wait); // Pause for ‘wait’ milliseconds before resuming the loop