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Technical

Article
Driving time-multiplexed LED arrays at high current: a
new approach
Joel Gehlin

Technical
Article

Driving time-multiplexed LED arrays at high current: a


new approach
Joel Gehlin
System designers have adopted time-multiplexed architectures for large-scale LED matrices in recent years in order to achieve a large reduction in the number of current sinks/sources required.
This architecture reduces the size and cost of the electronics circuitry in end products with large
LED arrays, such as smart commercial lighting and RGB signage.
This kind of design, however, is more difficult to implement when a high current is required at the
LEDs. This is because of the refresh rate applied by the LED driver in order to spread the current
evenly throughout the LED matrix if more than one LED is on at the same time. As a result, designers have found it hard to combine high current output (producing high brightness) with high efficiency, low cost and small size using conventional LED driver ICs. (The meaning of refresh rate is explained below.)
Interestingly, conventional LED driver ICs tend to be able to drive a high number of LEDs in a matrix
configuration. Close examination of the datasheets, however, reveals the problem: the constant
current at each sink/source in matrix configurations is typically in the range 10-40mA; only a few
can deliver even as much as 150mA.
In fact, for many large display applications, a real 150mA supply would be adequate but the refresh rate applied in time-multiplexed architectures means that the effective peak current at the LED
is often one-half or one-third of the chips nominal peak.
This article describes a solution to the problem using a device type that is far from the most obvious
choice: LED driver ICs for TV backlighting. The rapid growth in the market for LED TVs has
spawned a new generation of sophisticated and highly efficient driver ICs that provide a high current
capability. The article will explore the operation of time-multiplexing schemes and show the extent
to which the capabilities of backlighting driver ICs match the requirements of large lighting and
signage systems.
Basic operation of time-multiplexed matrices
Time-multiplexing is a technique for driving LEDs in a matrix without requiring a source for every
LED. Figure 1 shows the operation of a time-multiplexing scheme. To control the LED D1, Source.1
needs to be supplied with a voltage higher than the maximum forward voltage (VF) of the LED;
Sink.1 needs to be connected to a resistor or other type of current sink to draw the current through
the LED. LED D5 is controlled in the same way via Source.2 and Sink.2.
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Fig.1: the operation of an LED time-multiplexing scheme

So far, so easy. But what if D1 and D5 need to be ON at the same time? If Sink.1/Sink.2 and
Source.1/Source.2 are all ON, D2 and D4 will be turned ON as well. To overcome the problem, the
concept of time-multiplexing must be used. Instead of turning Source.1, Source.2, Sink.1 and Sink.2
ON continuously, the driver multiplexes between Source.1/Sink.1 and Source.2/Sink.2.
Provided the flickering of LEDs D1 and D5 is at a frequency of 50Hz or higher, the light will appear
to the human eye to be continuously ON. This time-multiplexing technique using an effective refresh
rate faster than 50Hz thus permits D1 and D5 to be lit without lighting D2 or D4.
There is, of course, a drawback: the time-multiplexing with the associated refresh rate reduces the
total LED current passing through the LEDs. Lets say that a given matrix refresh rate for a given set
of lit LEDs produces an effective 50% duty cycle applied to the LEDs: at a current set to 100mA via
the current sink, the effective constant current through each LED is 50mA.
There might appear to be an obvious way to combat this effect: double the current at Sink.1 and
Sink.2 to 200mA to provide a constant current of 100mA though the LEDs. Unfortunately, a current
output of 200mA is beyond the capability of the conventional LED driver ICs on the market today.
Time-multiplexing control scheme
The refresh rate describes the number of times per second that the current through each lit LED in
the matrix is reset. An example of a matrix control scheme is shown in Figure 2. Here, D1, D5 and
D9 are being lit with a current of 100mA through each LED.

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Fig.2: time-multiplexing control scheme

Provided a multiplexing scheme is looped fast enough between 200 and 1,000 times per second,
depending on the number of LEDs to be lit simultaneously the LEDs will appear to the human eye
to be continuously ON. In Figure 2, a refresh rate of 200Hz for the entire matrix means that each
LED will be switched at around 67Hz, which corresponds to a duty cycle at each LED of 33%. This
means that each sink needs to handle at least 300mA in order to produce the constant current
equivalent of 100mA at each LED.
Time-multiplexing also enables the creation of animations. The animation may be created in software code with a pre-defined series of bitmap images: these are usually arrays of n-bytes, in which
each bit represents one LED in the LED matrix. To realize the picture, the controller must scan
through each array one byte at a time, displaying one column after another.
A new approach to driving time-multiplexed LED architectures at high current
TV backlighting designs have almost universally replaced incandescent light sources (CCFL tubes)
with LEDs. A huge market segment, TV backlighting has induced a surge in the number of specialized backlighting LED driver ICs. Because of the requirement for high brightness in TVs, these ICs
must be able to control LEDs at high currents, either via external MOSFETs or via FETs embedded
in the driver chip.
An example of such a device is the AS3693B from ams, a 16-channel, high-precision LED controller
with built-in PWM generators for driving external FETs. (A sister part, the AS3693A, features integrated MOSFETs.) While the AS3693 family was specially designed to meet the precise currentPage 4 / 8

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control requirements of TV manufacturers, the devices may also be used to source/sink and control
LEDs in other applications.
Particularly useful is the ability to program output currents, which is also available in the AS382x
family. The options include:

Independent digital current control for each channel with a PWM generator

Linear current control with an 8-bit DAC

Linear current control with an external analogue voltage

Together with the ability to control external MOSFETs, the AS3693B gives the designer the freedom
to set an appropriate maximum current and adapt the output to the needs of a variety of applications, such as:

Multi-pixel advertising boards

Traffic signals

Backlit signage

General illumination

Accent lighting with RGB color-changing capability

Demonstration: LED EXIT sign


Safety EXIT signs powered by LEDs are up to 90% more efficient than traditional incandescent
signs. Operating 24 hours a day, the cost and energy savings to be made by switching to LEDs are
thus very considerable.
LED EXIT signs also offer savings in maintenance and repair, since their re-lamping cycle is typically a very long period of around 10 years. In addition, LED signs can offer better optical performance.
Figure 3 shows how a single AS3693B a 16-channel driver IC with an integrated PWM generator
can be configured to control a time-multiplexed matrix of 60 white LEDs. (An almost identical circuit could also control 3 x 20 RGB LEDs.) The use of such a device in a time-multiplexed architecture offers the system designer considerable bill-of-materials and space savings compared to a
conventional design, which would require four 16-channel driver ICs of the conventional type, which
has no PWM generator. This second, conventional design will occupy a much larger PCB area and
incur a much higher bill-of-materials cost.

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The constant current through each LED is provided by NMOS transistors. Selection of an appropriate NMOS device will provide for high efficiency and high brightness. The maximum current can be
limited by the RSET resistor connected to the source of the external MOSFET in each current sink.

Vpow
FB
Vreg

V2_5

C3

C2
100nF

25
NMOS
RSET

27
26

GND
28
NMOS
RSET

30
29

GND
31
NMOS
RSET

32

37

5
FBG

FBB

REF(Ext)

PWM

Gate13

RFB5

RFB13

CURR_sense6

CURR_sense14

PWM

Gate6

PWM

RFB6

PWM

Gate15

SMPS
feedback

RFB7
CURR_sense8

RFB15
CURR_sense16

86 byte
registers

PWM

Gate8

PWM

Gate16

SPI / I2C
Interface

RFB8

65

CURR_sense15

Fault detectors

PWM

Gate7

Gate14
RFB14

Reference,
DAC

CURR_sense7

GND

GND

33

CURR_sense13

PWM

Gate5

Gate12
RFB12

AS3693B

CURR_sense5

RGS

RFB16

PMOS

36
RGS

35

NPN
RSET

34

GND
PMOS

45
46

RGS

NPN
RSET

47

GND
PMOS

50
RGS

48

NPN
RSET

49

GND
PMOS

53
RGS

51

NPN
RSET

52

GND
PMOS

56
RGS

54

NPN
RSET

55

GND
PMOS

57
59

NPN
RSET

58

GND

D1

D2

D3

D4

D5

D6

GND

D7

D8

D9

D10

D11

D12

GND

D13

D14

D15

D16

D17

D18

D19

D20

D21

D22

D23

D24

D25

D26

D27

D28

D29

D30

D31

D32

D33

D34

D35

D36

D37

D38

D39

D40

D41

D42

D43

D44

D45

D46

D47

D48

D49

D50

D51

D52

D53

D54

D55

D56

D57

D58

D59

D60

60
NMOS

62

RSET

61
63

NMOS

RSET

64
V2_5

Fault

GND

RFB4

PWM

SDO

23

CURR_sense12

PWM

Gate4

44

RSET

RFB11

CURR_sense4

43

24
NMOS
22

Gate11

RFB3

SDA

GND

PWM

SCL

20

CURR_sense11

PWM

Gate3

CS

19

RFB10

CURR_sense3

42

21
NMOS
RSET

Gate10

RFB2

Hsync

GND

PWM

41

17

CURR_sense10

PWM

Gate2

Vsync

RSET

16

RFB9

CURR_sense2

40

18
NMOS

Gate9

RFB1

39

GND

PWM

38

15

FBR

9
RSET

14

V2_5

Vreg
13
NMOS

AS3693B

CURR_sense9

PWM

Gate1

ADDR1

GND

CURR_sense1

GNDsns

GND

10

GND

12

4
NMOS
RSET

Vled

C4

4.7uF 2.2uF 100nF

GND

ADDR2

GND

11

C1

Rpullup

Fault

GNDGND
RADDR1
RADDR2

Rpullup

Vreg

Rpullup
GNDGND

Rpullup

HSYNC
VSYNC

RVSYNC

SDO

RHSYNC

SDA
SCL

GNDGND

CS

Fig. 3: 60 time-multiplexed white LEDs controlled in a time-multiplexing architecture by a single AS3693B from ams

To reduce power consumption even more the AS3693s current settings can also adapt to the ambient light. During daytime, the application can be dimmed; once the light becomes too dark, the
system can boost the brightness to produce higher visibility and contrast.

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Improving efficiency through intelligent DC-DC conversion


The LEDs may be connected directly to, for example, a 12V power supply, but this will reduce the
designs efficiency as power is dissipated as waste heat in the NMOS transistors. To optimize efficiency for battery-powered equipment, the LEDs can equally be powered from an external DC-DC
converter that can dynamically change its output voltage to match the needs of the LEDs VF.
The AS3693B offers three different paths for feedback, and each LED can be assigned to a specific
LED supply. The operation of such a circuit is shown in Figure 4. The AS1341 is an efficient stepdown converter with adjustable output voltages ranging from 1.25V up to the input voltage (20V
maximum). It senses its output voltage with a resistive voltage divider. This voltage divider can be
modified to set the output voltage between a minimum output voltage (VMIN) and a maximum output voltage (VMAX) which is the basis of the devices dynamic feedback control.

Fig. 4: AS3693B feedback block for adjustable voltage control

The output of pins FBR, FBG and FBB of the AS3693B can be used to control any external power
supply. Each PWM generator in the AS3693B can be independently selected to use any of the
three feedback pins.
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Alternatively, by tying all the feedback pins together as a single feedback from AS3693B, the default
register setting will function as a general feedback to the power supply.
Conclusion
By implementing a time-multiplexing scheme with an LED backlight driver IC and combining this
architecture with an adaptive power supply, the designer of a large LED array can gain impressive
savings in board area, bill-of-materials cost and power consumption. Moreover, this design involves
the use of readily available standard parts that are well supported by relevant documentation and
specifications.
For more information about the ams portfolio of LED drivers, including the AS369x- and AS382xfamilies, visit www.ams.com/eng/Products/Lighting-Management/Large-LCD-Panel-BacklightingLED-Drivers.
For further information
ams AG
Tel: +43 (0) 3136 500
info@ams.com
www.ams.com

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