A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction (asymmetric conductance); it has low (ideally zero) resistance in one direction, and high (ideally infinite) resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. A semiconductor diode, the most commonly used type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other semiconducting materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are also used.
The most common function of a diode is to allow an electric current to pass in one direction (called the diode's forward direction), while blocking it in the opposite direction (the reverse direction). As such, the diode can be viewed as an electronic version of a check valve. This unidirectional behavior is called rectification, and is used to convert alternating current (ac) to direct current (dc). Forms of rectifiers, diodes can be used for such tasks as extracting modulation from radio signals in radio receivers.
However, diodes can have more complicated behavior than this simple on–off action, because of their nonlinear current-voltage characteristics. Semiconductor diodes begin conducting electricity only if a certain threshold voltage or cut-in voltage is present in the forward direction (a state in which the diode is said to be forward-biased). The voltage drop across a forward-biased diode varies only a little with the current, and is a function of temperature; this effect can be used as a temperature sensor or as a voltage reference. Also, diodes' high resistance to current flowing in the reverse direction suddenly drops to a low resistance when the reverse voltage across the diode reaches a value called the breakdown voltage.
A semiconductor diode's current–voltage characteristic can be tailored by selecting the semiconductor materials and the doping impurities introduced into the materials during manufacture. These techniques are used to create special-purpose diodes that perform many different functions. For example, diodes are used to regulate voltage (Zener diodes), to protect circuits from high voltage surges (avalanche diodes), to electronically tune radio and TV receivers (varactor diodes), to generate radio-frequency oscillations (tunnel diodes, Gunn diodes, IMPATT diodes), and to produce light (light-emitting diodes). Tunnel, Gunn and IMPATT diodes exhibit negative resistance, which is useful in microwave and switching circuits.
Diodes, both vacuum and semiconductor, can be used as shot-noise generators.
Thermionic (vacuum-tube) diodes and solid-state (semiconductor) diodes were developed separately, at approximately the same time, in the early 1900s, as radio receiver detectors. Until the 1950s, vacuum diodes were used more frequently in radios because the early point-contact semiconductor diodes were less stable. In addition, most receiving sets had vacuum tubes for amplification that could easily have the thermionic diodes included in the tube (for example the 12SQ7 double diode triode), and vacuum-tube rectifiers and gas-filled rectifiers were capable of handling some high-voltage/high-current rectification tasks better than the semiconductor diodes (such as selenium rectifiers) that were available at that time.
In 1873, Frederick Guthrie observed that a grounded, white-hot metal ball brought in close proximity to an electroscope would discharge a positively charged electroscope, but not a negatively charged electroscope.
In 1880, Thomas Edison observed unidirectional current between heated and unheated elements in a bulb, later called Edison effect, and was granted a patent on application of the phenomenon for use in a DC voltmeter.
About 20 years later, John Ambrose Fleming (scientific adviser to the Marconi Company and former Edison employee) realized that the Edison effect could be used as a radio detector. Fleming patented the first true thermionic diode, the Fleming valve, in Britain on November 16, 1904 (followed by U.S. Patent 803,684 in November 1905).
Throughout the vacuum tube era, valve diodes were used in almost all electronics such as radios, televisions, sound systems, and instrumentation. They slowly lost market share beginning in the late 1940s due to selenium rectifier technology and then to semiconductor diodes during the 1960s. Today they are still used in a few high power applications where their ability to withstand transient voltages and their robustness gives them an advantage over semiconductor devices, and in musical instrument and audiophile applications.
In 1874, German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun discovered the "unilateral conduction" across a contact between a metal and a mineral. Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to use a crystal for detecting radio waves in 1894. The crystal detector was developed into a practical device for wireless telegraphy by Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, who invented a silicon crystal detector in 1903 and received a patent for it on November 20, 1906. Other experimenters tried a variety of other minerals as detectors. Semiconductor principles were unknown to the developers of these early rectifiers. During the 1930s understanding of physics advanced and in the mid 1930s researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories recognized the potential of the crystal detector for application in microwave technology. Researchers at Bell Labs, Western Electric, MIT, Purdue and in the UK intensively developed point-contact diodes (crystal rectifiers or crystal diodes) during World War II for application in radar. After World War II, AT&T used these in their microwave towers that criss-crossed the United States, and many radar sets use them even in the 21st century. In 1946, Sylvania began offering the 1N34 crystal diode. During the early 1950s, junction diodes were developed.
At the time of their invention, asymmetrical conduction devices were known as rectifiers. In 1919, the year tetrodes were invented, William Henry Eccles coined the term diode from the Greek roots di (from δί), meaning 'two', and ode (from οδός), meaning 'path'. The word diode, however, as well as triode, tetrode, pentode, hexode, were already in use as terms of multiplex telegraphy.
A thermionic diode is a thermionic-valve device consisting of a sealed, evacuated glass or metal envelope containing two electrodes: a cathode and a plate. The cathode is either indirectly heated or directly heated. If indirect heating is employed, a heater is included in the envelope.
In operation, the cathode is heated to red heat, around 800–1,000 °C (1,470–1,830 °F). A directly heated cathode is made of tungsten wire and is heated by a current passed through it from an external voltage source. An indirectly heated cathode is heated by infrared radiation from a nearby heater that is formed of Nichrome wire and supplied with current provided by an external voltage source.
The operating temperature of the cathode causes it to release electrons into the vacuum, a process called thermionic emission. The cathode is coated with oxides of alkaline earth metals, such as barium and strontium oxides. These have a low work function, meaning that they more readily emit electrons than would the uncoated cathode.
The plate, not being heated, does not emit electrons; but is able to absorb them.
The alternating voltage to be rectified is applied between the cathode and the plate. When the plate voltage is positive with respect to the cathode, the plate electrostatically attracts the electrons from the cathode, so a current of electrons flows through the tube from cathode to plate. When the plate voltage is negative with respect to the cathode, no electrons are emitted by the plate, so no current can pass from the plate to the cathode.
Point-contact diodes were developed starting in the 1930s, out of the early crystal detector technology, and are now generally used in the 3 to 30 gigahertz range. Point-contact diodes use a small diameter metal wire in contact with a semiconductor crystal, and are of either non-welded contact type or welded contact type. Non-welded contact construction utilizes the Schottky barrier principle. The metal side is the pointed end of a small diameter wire that is in contact with the semiconductor crystal. In the welded contact type, a small P region is formed in the otherwise N-type crystal around the metal point during manufacture by momentarily passing a relatively large current through the device. Point contact diodes generally exhibit lower capacitance, higher forward resistance and greater reverse leakage than junction diodes.
A p–n junction diode is made of a crystal of semiconductor, usually silicon, but germanium and gallium arsenide are also used. Impurities are added to it to create a region on one side that contains negative charge carriers (electrons), called an n-type semiconductor, and a region on the other side that contains positive charge carriers (holes), called a p-type semiconductor. When the n-type and p-type materials are attached together, a momentary flow of electrons occurs from the n to the p side resulting in a third region between the two where no charge carriers are present. This region is called the depletion region because there are no charge carriers (neither electrons nor holes) in it. The diode's terminals are attached to the n-type and p-type regions. The boundary between these two regions called a p–n junction, is where the action of the diode takes place. When a sufficiently higher electrical potential is applied to the P side (the anode) than to the N side (the cathode), it allows electrons to flow through the depletion region from the N-type side to the P-type side. The junction does not allow the flow of electrons in the opposite direction when the potential is applied in reverse, creating, in a sense, an electrical check valve.
A semiconductor diode's behavior in a circuit is given by its current–voltage characteristic, or I–V graph (see graph below). The shape of the curve is determined by the transport of charge 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 (vacant places for electrons) 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 (dopant) on the N side and negatively charged acceptor (dopant) on the P side. The region around the p–n junction becomes depleted of charge carriers and thus behaves as an insulator.
However, the width of the depletion region (called the depletion width) cannot grow without limit. For each electron–hole pair recombination made, a positively charged dopant ion is left behind in the N-doped region, and a negatively charged dopant ion is created in the P-doped region. As recombination proceeds and more ions are created, an increasing electric field develops through the depletion zone that 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 (unless electron–hole pairs are actively being created in the junction by, for instance, light; see photodiode). This is called the reverse bias phenomenon.
However, if the polarity of the external voltage opposes the built-in potential, recombination can once again proceed, resulting in a substantial electric current through the p–n junction (i.e. substantial numbers of electrons and holes recombine at the junction). For silicon diodes, the built-in potential is approximately 0.7 V (0.3 V for germanium and 0.2 V for Schottky). Thus, if an external voltage greater than and opposite to the built-in voltage is applied, a current will flow and the diode is said to be "turned on" as it has been given an external forward bias. The diode is commonly said to have a forward "threshold" voltage, above which it conducts and below which conduction stops. However, this is only an approximation as the forward characteristic is smooth (see I-V graph above).
A diode's I–V characteristic can be approximated by four regions of operation:
In a small silicon diode operating at its rated currents, the voltage drop is about 0.6 to 0.7 volts. The value is different for other diode types—Schottky diodes can be rated as low as 0.2 V, germanium diodes 0.25 to 0.3 V, and red or blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can have values of 1.4 V and 4.0 V respectively.
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 Shockley ideal diode equation or the diode law (named after the bipolar junction transistor co-inventor William Bradford Shockley) gives the I–V characteristic of an ideal diode in either forward or reverse bias (or no bias). The following equation is called the Shockley ideal diode equation when n, the ideality factor, is set equal to 1 :
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 reverse saturation current, IS, is not constant for a given device, but varies with temperature; usually more significantly than VT, so that VD typically decreases as T increases.
The Shockley ideal diode equation or the diode law is derived with the assumption that the only processes giving rise to the current in the diode are drift (due to electrical field), diffusion, and thermal recombination–generation (R–G) (this equation is derived by setting n = 1 above). It also assumes that the R–G current in the depletion region is insignificant. This means that the Shockley ideal diode equation does not account for the processes involved in the reverse breakdown and photon-assisted R–G. Additionally, it does not describe the "leveling off" of the I–V curve at high forward bias due to internal resistance. Introducing the ideality factor, n, accounts for recombination and generation of carriers.
Under reverse bias voltages 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 the exponential is very large since the thermal voltage is very small in comparison. The subtracted '1' in the diode equation is then negligible and the forward diode current can be approximated by
The use of the diode equation in circuit problems is illustrated in the article on diode modeling.
At forward voltages less than the saturation voltage, the voltage versus current characteristic curve of most diodes is not a straight line. The current can be approximated by as mentioned in the previous section.
In detector and mixer applications, the current can be estimated by a Taylor's series. The odd terms can be omitted because they produce frequency components that are outside the pass band of the mixer or detector. Even terms beyond the second derivative usually need not be included because they are small compared to the second order term. The desired current component is approximately proportional to the square of the input voltage, so the response is called square law in this region.: p. 3
Following the end of forwarding conduction in a p–n type diode, a reverse current can flow for a short time. The device does not attain its blocking capability until the mobile charge in the junction is depleted.
The effect can be significant when switching large currents very quickly. A certain amount of "reverse recovery time" tr (on the order of tens of nanoseconds to a few microseconds) may be required to remove the reverse recovery charge Qr from the diode. During this recovery time, the diode can actually conduct in the reverse direction. This might give rise to a large constant current in the reverse direction for a short time while the diode is reverse biased. The magnitude of such a reverse current is determined by the operating circuit (i.e., the series resistance) and the diode is said to be in the storage-phase. In certain real-world cases it is important to consider the losses that are incurred by this non-ideal diode effect. However, when the slew rate of the current is not so severe (e.g. Line frequency) the effect can be safely ignored. For most applications, the effect is also negligible for Schottky diodes.
The reverse current ceases abruptly when the stored charge is depleted; this abrupt stop is exploited in step recovery diodes for the generation of extremely short pulses.
Normal (p–n) diodes, which operate as described above, are usually made of doped silicon or germanium. Before the development of silicon power rectifier diodes, cuprous oxide and later selenium was used. Their low efficiency required a much higher forward voltage to be applied (typically 1.4 to 1.7 V per "cell", with multiple cells stacked so as to increase the peak inverse voltage rating for application in high voltage rectifiers), and required a large heat sink (often an extension of the diode's metal substrate), much larger than the later 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.
Other uses for semiconductor diodes include the sensing of temperature, and computing analog logarithms (see Operational amplifier applications#Logarithmic output).
The symbol used to represent a particular type of diode in a circuit diagram conveys the general electrical function to the reader. There are alternative symbols for some types of diodes, though the differences are minor. The triangle in the symbols points to the forward direction, i.e. in the direction of conventional current flow.
Light-emitting diode (LED)
Typical diode packages in same alignment as diode symbol. Thin bar depicts the cathode.
The standardized 1N-series numbering EIA370 system was introduced in the US by EIA/JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) about 1960. Most diodes have a 1-prefix designation (e.g., 1N4003). Among the most popular in this series were: 1N34A/1N270 (germanium signal), 1N914/1N4148 (silicon signal), 1N400x (silicon 1A power rectifier), and 1N580x (silicon 3A power rectifier).
The JIS semiconductor designation system has all semiconductor diode designations starting with "1S".
The European Pro Electron coding system for active components was introduced in 1966 and comprises two letters followed by the part code. The first letter represents the semiconductor material used for the component (A = germanium and B = silicon) and the second letter represents the general function of the part (for diodes, A = low-power/signal, B = variable capacitance, X = multiplier, Y = rectifier and Z = voltage reference); for example:
Other common numbering/coding systems (generally manufacturer-driven) include:
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 one direction. It uses a Faraday rotator as the main component.
The first use for the diode was the demodulation of amplitude modulated (AM) radio broadcasts. The history of this discovery is treated in depth in the crystal detector article. In summary, an AM signal consists of alternating positive and negative peaks of a radio carrier wave, whose amplitude or envelope is proportional to the original audio signal. The diode rectifies the AM radio frequency signal, leaving only the positive peaks of the carrier wave. The audio is then extracted from the rectified carrier wave using a simple filter and fed into an audio amplifier or transducer, which generates sound waves.
In microwave and millimeter wave technology, beginning in the 1930s, researchers improved and miniaturized the crystal detector. Point contact diodes (crystal diodes) and Schottky diodes are used in radar, microwave and millimeter wave detectors.
Rectifiers are constructed from diodes, where they are used to convert alternating current (AC) electricity into direct current (DC). Automotive alternators are a common example, where the diode, which rectifies the AC into DC, provides better performance than the commutator or earlier, dynamo. Similarly, diodes are also used in Cockcroft–Walton voltage multipliers to convert AC into higher DC voltages.
Since most electronic circuits can be damaged when the polarity of their power supply inputs are reversed, a series diode is sometimes used to protect against such situations. This concept is known by multiple naming variations that mean the same thing: reverse voltage protection, reverse polarity protection, and reverse battery protection.
Diodes are frequently used to conduct damaging high voltages away from sensitive electronic devices. They are usually reverse-biased (non-conducting) under normal circumstances. When the voltage rises above the normal range, the diodes become forward-biased (conducting). For example, diodes are used in (stepper motor and H-bridge) motor controller and relay circuits to de-energize coils rapidly without the damaging voltage spikes that would otherwise occur. (A diode used in such an application is called a flyback diode). Many integrated circuits also incorporate diodes on the connection pins to prevent external voltages from damaging their sensitive transistors. Specialized diodes are used to protect from over-voltages at higher power (see Diode types above).
In addition to light, mentioned above, semiconductor diodes are sensitive to more energetic radiation. In electronics, cosmic rays and other sources of ionizing radiation cause noise pulses and single and multiple bit errors. This effect is sometimes exploited by particle detectors to detect radiation. A single particle of radiation, with thousands or millions of electron volt, s of energy, generates many charge carrier pairs, as its energy is deposited in the semiconductor material. If the depletion layer is large enough to catch the whole shower or to stop a heavy particle, a fairly accurate measurement of the particle's energy can be made, simply by measuring the charge conducted and without the complexity of a magnetic spectrometer, etc. These semiconductor radiation detectors need efficient and uniform charge collection and low leakage current. They are often cooled by liquid nitrogen. For longer-range (about a centimeter) particles, they need a very large depletion depth and large area. For short-range particles, they need any contact or un-depleted semiconductor on at least one surface to be very thin. The back-bias voltages are near breakdown (around a thousand volts per centimeter). Germanium and silicon are common materials. Some of these detectors sense position as well as energy. They have a finite life, especially when detecting heavy particles, because of radiation damage. Silicon and germanium are quite different in their ability to convert gamma rays to electron showers.
Semiconductor detectors for high-energy particles are used in large numbers. Because of energy loss fluctuations, accurate measurement of the energy deposited is of less use.
A diode can be used as a temperature measuring device, since the forward voltage drop across the diode depends on temperature, as in a silicon bandgap temperature sensor. From the Shockley ideal diode equation given above, it might appear that the voltage has a positive temperature coefficient (at a constant current), but usually the variation of the reverse saturation current term is more significant than the variation in the thermal voltage term. Most diodes therefore have a negative temperature coefficient, typically −2 mV/°C for silicon diodes. The temperature coefficient is approximately constant for temperatures above about 20 kelvin. Some graphs are given for 1N400x series, and CY7 cryogenic temperature sensor.
Diodes will prevent currents in unintended directions. To supply power to an electrical circuit during a power failure, the circuit can draw current from a battery. An uninterruptible power supply may use diodes in this way to ensure that the current is only drawn from the battery when necessary. Likewise, small boats typically have two circuits each with their own battery/batteries: one used for engine starting; one used for domestics. Normally, both are charged from a single alternator, and a heavy-duty split-charge diode is used to prevent the higher-charge battery (typically the engine battery) from discharging through the lower-charge battery when the alternator is not running.
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 backward through the circuit and trigger "phantom keys" that cause "ghost" notes to play. 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.
Diodes can be used to limit the positive or negative excursion of a signal to a prescribed voltage.
A diode clamp circuit can take a periodic alternating current signal that oscillates between positive and negative values, and vertically displace it such that either the positive or the negative peaks occur at a prescribed level. The clamper does not restrict the peak-to-peak excursion of the signal, it moves the whole signal up or down so as to place the peaks at the reference level.
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