Semiconductor diodes can be designed to have a variety of characteristics. A thermistor is a special semiconductor diode whose conductivity increases with the diode temperature. A varactor, or varicap, exhibits a capacitance that is dependent upon the voltage across it. In an Esaki, or tunnel, diode, the current through the device decreases as the voltage is increased within a certain range; this property, known as negative resistance, makes it useful as an amplifier (see tunneling). Gunn diodes are negative-resistance diodes that are the basis of some microwave oscillators. Light-sensitive, or photosensitive, diodes can be used to measure illumination; the voltage drop across them depends on the amount of light that strikes them. Photodiodes, which respond to being struck by packets of light, or photons, can be used as solar cells. Schottky diodes are used in low voltage circuits and batteries. Snap diodes provide very fast voltage transitions. A light-emitting diode (LED) produces light as current passes through it; a specialized LED, called a laser diode, emits laser light, useful for telecommunications through optical fibers. LEDs are used in computer monitors and television screens, in flashlights, and in lighting. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are made with plastics rather than silicon and other traditional semiconductor materials; color OLEDs are thinner, lighter, brighter, and use less power than color LEDs and are finding use in small portable devices such as telephones, digital cameras, and PDAs and in small screen televisions.
Semiconductor diode that produces visible or infrared light when subjected to an electric current, as a result of electroluminescence. Visible-light LEDs are used in many electronic devices as indicator lamps (e.g., an on/off indicator) and, when arranged in a matrix, to spell out letters or numbers on alphanumeric displays. Infrared LEDs are used in optoelectronics (e.g., in auto-focus cameras and television remote controls) and as light sources in some long-range fibre-optic communications systems. LEDs are formed by the so-called III-V compound semiconductors related to gallium arsenide. They consume little power and are long-lasting and inexpensive.
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Electronic device that has two electrodes (anode and cathode) and that allows current to flow in only one direction, resisting current flow in the other. An applied voltage can cause electrons to flow in only one direction, from the cathode to the anode, and then back to the cathode through an external circuit. Diodes are used especially as rectifiers—which change alternating current into direct current—and to vary the amplitude of a signal in proportion to the voltage in a circuit, as in a radio or television receiver. The most familiar diodes are vacuum tubes and semiconductor diodes. Semiconductor diodes, the simplest of semiconductor devices, consist of two electrodes and a sandwich of two dissimilar semiconducting substances (a p-n junction). Such diodes form the basis for more complex semiconductor devices (including transistors) used in computers and other electronic equipment. Semiconductor diodes include light-emitting diodes and laser diodes; the latter emit laser light, useful for telecommunications via fibre optics and for reading compact discs.
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Diodes have two active electrodes between which the signal of interest may flow, and most are used for their unidirectional electric current property. The varicap diode is used as an electrically adjustable capacitor.
The directionality of current flow most diodes exhibit is sometimes generically called the rectifying property. The most common function of a diode is to allow an electric current to pass in one direction (called the forward biased condition) and to block the current in the opposite direction (the reverse biased condition). Thus, the diode can be thought of as an electronic version of a check valve.
Real diodes do not display such a perfect on-off directionality but have a more complex non-linear electrical characteristic, which depends on the particular type of diode technology. Diodes also have many other functions in which they are not designed to operate in this on-off manner.
Early diodes included “cat’s whisker” crystals and vacuum tube devices (also called thermionic valves). Today the most common diodes are made from semiconductor materials such as silicon or germanium.
Although the crystal diode was popularized before the thermionic diode, thermionic and solid state diodes were developed in parallel. The principle of operation of thermionic diodes was discovered by Frederick Guthrie in 1873. The principle of operation of crystal diodes was discovered in 1874 by the German scientist, Karl Ferdinand Braun.
Thermionic diode principles were rediscovered by Thomas Edison on February 13, 1880 and he was awarded a patent in 1883 but developed the idea no further. Braun patented the crystal rectifier in 1899. Braun's discovery was further developed by Jagdish Chandra Bose into a useful device for radio detection.
The first radio receiver using a crystal diode was built by Greenleaf Whittier Pickard. The first thermionic diode was patented in Britain by John Ambrose Fleming (scientific adviser to the Marconi Company and former Edison employee.) on November 16 1904 (in November 1905). Pickard received a patent for a silicon crystal detector on November 20 1906 ().
Thermionic diodes are thermionic valve devices (also known as vacuum tubes), which are arrangements of electrodes surrounded by a vacuum within a glass envelope. Early examples were fairly similar in appearance to incandescent light bulbs.
In thermionic valve diodes, a current is passed through the heater filament. This indirectly heats the cathode, another internal electrode treated with a mixture of barium and strontium oxides, which are oxides of alkaline earth metals; these substances are chosen because they have a small work function. (Some valves use direct heating, in which a tungsten filament acts as both heater and cathode.) The heat causes thermionic emission of electrons into the vacuum. In forward operation, a surrounding metal electrode, called the anode, is positively charged, so that it electrostatically attracts the emitted electrons. However, electrons are not easily released from the unheated anode surface when the voltage polarity is reversed and hence any reverse flow is a very tiny current.
For much of the 20th century, thermionic valve diodes were used in analog signal applications, and as rectifiers in many power supplies. Today, valve diodes are only used in niche applications, such as rectifiers in guitar and hi-fi valve amplifiers, and specialized high-voltage equipment.
Most modern diodes are based on semiconductor p-n junctions. In a p-n diode, conventional current can flow from the p-type side (the anode) to the n-type side (the cathode), but cannot flow in the opposite direction. Another type of semiconductor diode, the Schottky diode, is formed from the contact between a metal and a semiconductor rather than by a p-n junction.
A semiconductor diode's current–voltage characteristic, or I–V curve, is related to the transport of carriers through the so-called depletion layer or depletion region that exists at the p-n junction between differing semiconductors. When a p-n junction is first created, conduction band (mobile) electrons from the N-doped region diffuse into the P-doped region where there is a large population of holes (places for electrons in which no electron is present) with which the electrons "recombine". When a mobile electron recombines with a hole, both hole and electron vanish, leaving behind an immobile positively charged donor on the N-side and negatively charged acceptor on the P-side. The region around the p-n junction becomes depleted of charge carriers and thus behaves as an insulator.
However, the depletion width cannot grow without limit. For each electron-hole pair that recombines, a positively-charged dopant ion is left behind in the N-doped region, and a negatively charged dopant ion is left behind in the P-doped region. As recombination proceeds and more ions are created, an increasing electric field develops through the depletion zone which acts to slow and then finally stop recombination. At this point, there is a "built-in" potential across the depletion zone.
If an external voltage is placed across the diode with the same polarity as the built-in potential, the depletion zone continues to act as an insulator, preventing any significant electric current flow. This is the reverse bias phenomenon. However, if the polarity of the external voltage opposes the built-in potential, recombination can once again proceed, resulting in substantial electric current through the p-n junction. For silicon diodes, the built-in potential is approximately 0.6 V. Thus, if an external current is passed through the diode, about 0.6 V will be developed across the diode such that the P-doped region is positive with respect to the N-doped region and the diode is said to be "turned on" as it has a forward bias.
A diode’s I–V characteristic can be approximated by four regions of operation (see the figure at right).
At very large reverse bias, beyond the peak inverse voltage or PIV, a process called reverse breakdown occurs which causes a large increase in current that usually damages the device permanently. The avalanche diode is deliberately designed for use in the avalanche region. In the zener diode, the concept of PIV is not applicable. A zener diode contains a heavily doped p-n junction allowing electrons to tunnel from the valence band of the p-type material to the conduction band of the n-type material, such that the reverse voltage is "clamped" to a known value (called the zener voltage), and avalanche does not occur. Both devices, however, do have a limit to the maximum current and power in the clamped reverse voltage region. Also, following the end of forward conduction in any diode, there is reverse current for a short time. The device does not attain its full blocking capability until the reverse current ceases.
The second region, at reverse biases more positive than the PIV, has only a very small reverse saturation current. In the reverse bias region for a normal P-N rectifier diode, the current through the device is very low (in the µA range).
The third region is forward but small bias, where only a small forward current is conducted.
As the potential difference is increased above an arbitrarily defined "cut-in voltage" or "on-voltage" or "diode forward voltage drop (Vd)", the diode current becomes appreciable (the level of current considered "appreciable" and the value of cut-in voltage depends on the application), and the diode presents a very low resistance.
The current–voltage curve is exponential. In a normal silicon diode at rated currents, the arbitrary "cut-in" voltage is defined as 0.6 to 0.7 volts. The value is different for other diode types — Schottky diodes can be as low as 0.2 V and red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can be 1.4 V or more and blue LEDs can be up to 4.0 V.
At higher currents the forward voltage drop of the diode increases. A drop of 1 V to 1.5 V is typical at full rated current for power diodes.
The thermal voltage VT is approximately 25.85 mV at 300 K, a temperature close to “room temperature” commonly used in device simulation software. At any temperature it is a known constant defined by:
The Shockley ideal diode equation or the diode law is derived with the assumption that the only processes giving rise to current in the diode are drift (due to electrical field), diffusion, and thermal recombination-generation. It also assumes that the recombination-generation (R-G) current in the depletion region is insignificant. This means that the Shockley equation doesn’t account for the processes involved in reverse breakdown and photon-assisted R-G. Additionally, it doesn’t describe the “leveling off” of the I–V curve at high forward bias due to internal resistance.
Under reverse bias voltages (see Figure 5) the exponential in the diode equation is negligible, and the current is a constant (negative) reverse current value of -IS. The reverse breakdown region is not modeled by the Shockley diode equation.
For even rather small forward bias voltages (see Figure 5) the exponential is very large because the thermal voltage is very small, so the subtracted ‘1’ in the diode equation is negligible and the forward diode current is often approximated as
The use of the diode equation in circuit problems is illustrated in the article on diode modeling.
There are several types of junction diodes, which either emphasize a different physical aspect of a diode often by geometric scaling, doping level, choosing the right electrodes, are just an application of a diode in a special circuit, or are really different devices like the Gunn and laser diode and the MOSFET:
Normal (p-n) diodes, which operate as described above, are usually made of doped silicon or, more rarely, germanium. Before the development of modern silicon power rectifier diodes, cuprous oxide and later selenium was used; its low efficiency gave it a much higher forward voltage drop (typically 1.4–1.7 V per “cell”, with multiple cells stacked to increase the peak inverse voltage rating in high voltage rectifiers), and required a large heat sink (often an extension of the diode’s metal substrate), much larger than a silicon diode of the same current ratings would require. The vast majority of all diodes are the p-n diodes found in CMOS integrated circuits, which include two diodes per pin and many other internal diodes.
In optics, an equivalent device for the diode but with laser light would be the Optical isolator, also known as an Optical Diode, that allows light to only pass in 1 direction. It uses a Faraday rotator as the main component.
Diodes are also used in electronic musical keyboards. To reduce the amount of wiring needed in electronic musical keyboards, these instruments often use keyboard matrix circuits. The keyboard controller scans the rows and columns to determine which note the player has pressed. The problem with matrix circuits is that when several notes are pressed at once, the current can flow backwards through the circuit and trigger "ghost" notes. To avoid triggering unwanted notes, most keyboard matrix circuits have diodes soldered with the switch under each key of the musical keyboard. The same principle is also used for the switch matrix in solid state pinball machines.