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In electronics, a diode is a two-terminal electronic component with asymmetric conductance, it has low (ideally zero) resistance to current flow in one direction, and high (ideally infinite) resistance in the other. A semiconductor diode, the most common type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. A vacuum tube diode has two electrodes, a plate (anode) and a heated cathode. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of crystals' rectifying abilities was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. The first semiconductor diodes, called cat's whisker diodes, developed around 1906, were made of mineral crystals such as galena. Today most diodes are made of silicon, but other semiconductors such as selenium or germanium are sometimes 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 current in the opposite direction (the reverse direction). Thus, 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 to direct current, including extraction of modulation from radio signals in radio receivers—these diodes are forms of rectifiers.
However, diodes can have more complicated behavior than this simple on–off action, due to 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 voltage reference.
Semiconductor diodes' current–voltage characteristic can be tailored by varying the semiconductor materials and doping, introducing impurities into the materials. These are exploited in 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 diodes exhibit negative resistance, which makes them useful in some types of circuits.
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 tube diodes were more often used in radios because the early point-contact type semiconductor diodes (cat's-whisker detectors) were less stable, and because most receiving sets had vacuum tubes for amplification that could easily have diodes included in the tube (for example the 12SQ7 double-diode triode), and vacuum tube rectifiers and gas-filled rectifiers handled some high voltage/high current rectification tasks beyond the capabilities of semiconductor diodes (such as selenium rectifiers) available at the time.
In 1873, Frederick Guthrie discovered the basic principle of operation of thermionic diodes. Guthrie discovered that a positively charged electroscope could be discharged by bringing a grounded piece of white-hot metal close to it (but not actually touching it). The same did not apply to a negatively charged electroscope, indicating that the current flow was only possible in one direction.
Thomas Edison independently rediscovered the principle on February 13, 1880. At the time, Edison was investigating why the filaments of his carbon-filament light bulbs nearly always burned out at the positive-connected end. He had a special bulb made with a metal plate sealed into the glass envelope. Using this device, he confirmed that an invisible current flowed from the glowing filament through the vacuum to the metal plate, but only when the plate was connected to the positive supply.
Edison devised a circuit where his modified light bulb effectively replaced the resistor in a DC voltmeter. Edison was awarded a patent for this invention in 1884. Since there was no apparent practical use for such a device at the time, the patent application was most likely simply a precaution in case someone else did find a use for the so-called Edison effect.
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 precision 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).
In 1874 German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun discovered the "unilateral conduction" of crystals. Braun patented the crystal rectifier in 1899. Copper oxide and selenium rectifiers were developed for power applications in the 1930s.
Indian scientist 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 substances, of which the most widely used was the mineral galena (lead sulfide). Other substances offered slightly better performance, but galena was most widely used because it had the advantage of being cheap and easy to obtain. The crystal detector in these early crystal radio sets consisted of an adjustable wire point-contact (the so-called "cat's whisker"), which could be manually moved over the face of the crystal in order to obtain optimum signal. This troublesome device was superseded by thermionic diodes by the 1920s, but after high purity semiconductor materials became available, the crystal detector returned to dominant use with the advent of inexpensive fixed-germanium diodes in the 1950s. Bell Labs also developed a germanium diode for microwave reception, and AT&T used these in their microwave towers that criss-crossed the nation starting in the late 1940s, carrying telephone and network television signals. Bell Labs did not develop a satisfactory thermionic diode for microwave reception.
At the time of their invention, such 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 ὁδός), meaning "path". (However, the word diode itself, as well as triode, tetrode, penthode, hexode, was already in use as a term of multiplex telegraphy; see, for example, The telegraphic journal and electrical review, September 10, 1886, p. 252).
A thermionic diode is a thermionic-valve device (also known as a vacuum tube, tube, or valve), consisting of a sealed evacuated glass envelope containing two electrodes: a cathode heated by a filament, and a plate (anode). Early examples were fairly similar in appearance to incandescent light bulbs.
In operation, a separate current through the filament (heater), a high resistance wire made of nichrome, heats the cathode red hot (800–1000 °C), causing 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, which have a low work function, to increase the number of electrons emitted. (Some valves use direct heating, in which a tungsten filament acts as both heater and cathode.) The alternating voltage to be rectified is applied between the cathode and the concentric plate electrode. When the plate has a positive voltage with respect to the cathode, it electrostatically attracts the electrons from the cathode, so a current of electrons flows through the tube from cathode to plate. However when the polarity is reversed and the plate has a negative voltage, no current flows, because the cathode electrons are not attracted to it. The unheated plate does not emit any electrons itself. So current can only flow through the tube in one direction, from cathode to plate.
In a mercury-arc valve, an arc forms between a refractory conductive anode and a pool of liquid mercury acting as cathode. Such units were made with ratings up to hundreds of kilowatts, and were important in the development of HVDC power transmission. Some types of smaller thermionic rectifiers sometimes had mercury vapor fill to reduce their forward voltage drop and to increase current rating over thermionic hard-vacuum devices.
Throughout the vacuum tube era, valve diodes were used in analog signal applications and as rectifiers in DC power supplies in consumer electronics such as radios, televisions, and sound systems. They were replaced in power supplies beginning in the 1940s by selenium rectifiers and then by semiconductor diodes by the 1960s. Today they are still used in a few high power applications where their ability to withstand transients and their robustness gives them an advantage over semiconductor devices. The recent (2012) resurgence of interest among audiophiles and recording studios in old valve audio gear such as guitar amplifiers and home audio systems has provided a market for the legacy consumer diode valves.
The symbol used for a semiconductor diode in a circuit diagram specifies the type of diode. There are alternate symbols for some types of diodes, though the differences are minor.
Light Emitting Diode (LED)
Figure 7: Typical diode packages in same alignment as diode symbol. Thin bar depicts the cathode.
A point-contact diode works the same as the junction diodes described below, but their construction is simpler. A block of n-type semiconductor is built, and a conducting sharp-point contact made with some group-3 metal is placed in contact with the semiconductor. Some metal migrates into the semiconductor to make a small region of p-type semiconductor near the contact. The long-popular 1N34 germanium version is still used in radio receivers as a detector and occasionally in specialized analog electronics.
Most diodes today are silicon junction diodes. A junction is formed between the p and n regions which is also called a depletion region.
A p–n junction diode is made of a crystal of semiconductor. Impurities are added to it to create a region on one side that contains negative charge carriers (electrons), called n-type semiconductor, and a region on the other side that contains positive charge carriers (holes), called p-type semiconductor. When two materials i.e. n-type and p-type are attached together, a momentary flow of electrons occur from n to p side resulting in a third region where no charge carriers are present. It is called Depletion region due to the absence of charge carriers (electrons and holes in this case). The diode's terminals are attached to each of these regions. The boundary between these two regions, called a p–n junction, is where the action of the diode takes place. The crystal allows electrons to flow from the N-type side (called the cathode) to the P-type side (called the anode), but not in the opposite direction.
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 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 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 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 (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 current passes through the diode, the voltage across the diode increases logarithmic with the current 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. Note there is nothing like a threshold voltage with a forward biased diode as it is occasionally unfortunately mentioned. The forward characteristic is according to the Shockley equation absolutely smooth (see graph below).
A diode's I–V characteristic can be approximated by four regions of operation.
At very large reverse bias, beyond the peak inverse voltage or PIV, a process called reverse breakdown occurs that causes a large increase in current (i.e., a large number of electrons and holes are created at, and move away from the p–n junction) 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). However, this is temperature dependent, and at sufficiently high temperatures, a substantial amount of reverse current can be observed (mA or more).
The third region is forward but small bias, where only a small forward current is conducted.
The current–voltage curve is exponential. In a smal silicon diode at 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 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 Shockley ideal diode equation is below, where n, the ideality factor, is 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 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. Introducing the ideality factor, n, accounts for recombination and generation of carriers.
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.
For circuit design, a small-signal model of the diode behavior often proves useful. A specific example of diode modeling is discussed in the article on small-signal circuits.
Following the end of forward conduction in a p–n type diode, a reverse current flows 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. In certain real-world cases it can be important to consider the losses 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 generation of extremely short pulses.
There are several types of p–n junction diodes, which emphasize either 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 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 to 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.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)
Super barrier diodes
Snap-off or Step recovery diodes
Stabistors or Forward Reference Diodes
Varicap or varactor diodes
Other uses for semiconductor diodes include sensing temperature, and computing analog logarithms (see Operational amplifier applications#Logarithmic_output).
The standardized 1N-series numbering EIA370 system was introduced in the US by EIA/JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) about 1960. Among the most popular in this series were: 1N34A/1N270 (Germanium signal), 1N914/1N4148 (Silicon signal), 1N4001-1N4007 (Silicon 1A power rectifier) and 1N54xx (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:
As well as these common codes, many manufacturers or organisations have their own systems too – for example:
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 radio 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 (originally a crystal 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.
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.
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. (Any 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 volts 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 centimetre) 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 centimetre). 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 at room temperature. This is approximately linear for temperatures above about 20 kelvins. 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 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 backwards 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.
Many other two-terminal nonlinear devices exist, for example a neon lamp has two terminals in a glass envelope and has interesting and useful nonlinear properties. Lamps including arc-discharge lamps, incandescent lamps, fluorescent lamps and mercury vapor lamps have two terminals and display nonlinear current–voltage characteristics.
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