Electronics Components: Diodes

A diode is an electronics component made from a combination of a P-type and N-type semiconductor material, known as a p-n junction, with leads attached to the two ends. These leads allow you to easily incorporate the diode into your electronic circuits.

The lead attached to the n-type semiconductor is called the cathode. Thus, the cathode is the negative side of the diode. The positive side of the diode — that is, the lead attached to the p-type semiconductor — is called the anode.

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When a voltage source is connected to a diode such that the positive side of the voltage source is on the anode and the negative side is on the cathode, the diode becomes a conductor and allows current to flow. Voltage connected to the diode in this direction is called forward bias.

But if you reverse the voltage direction, applying the positive side to the cathode and the negative side to the anode, current doesn't flow. In effect, the diode becomes an insulator. Voltage connected to the diode in this direction is called reverse bias.

Forward bias allows current to flow through the diode. Reverse bias doesn't allow current to flow. (Up to a point, anyway. As you'll discover in just a few moments, there are limits to how much reverse bias voltage a diode can hold at bay.)

This is the schematic symbol for a diode :

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The anode is on the left, and the cathode is on the right. Here are two useful tricks for remembering which side of the symbol is the anode and which is the cathode:

  • Think of the anode side of the symbol as an arrow that indicates the direction of conventional current flow — from positive to negative. Thus, the diode allows current to flow in the direction of the arrow.

  • Think of the vertical line on the cathode side as a giant minus sign, indicating which side of the diode is negative for forward bias.

Forward and reverse bias can be illustrated with two very simple circuits that connect a lamp to a battery with diodes. In the circuit on the left, the diode is forward biased, so current flows through the circuit and the lamp lights up. In the circuit on the right, the diode is reverse biased, so current doesn't flow and the lamp remains dark.

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Note that in a typical diode, a certain amount of forward voltage is required before any current will flow. This amount is usually very small. In most diodes, this voltage is around half a volt. Up to this voltage, current doesn't flow. Once the forward voltage is reached, however, current flows easily through the diode.

This minimum threshold of voltage in the forward direction is called the diode's forward voltage drop. That's because the circuit loses this voltage at the diode. For example, if you were to place a voltmeter across the leads of the diode in the forward-biased circuit, you would read the forward voltage drop of the diode.

Then, if you were to place the voltmeter across the lamp terminals, the voltage would be the difference between the battery voltage (9 V) and the forward voltage drop of the diode.

For example, if the forward voltage drop of the diode was 0.7 V and the battery voltage was exactly 9 V, the voltage across the lamp would be 8.3 V.

Diodes also have a maximum reverse voltage they can withstand before they break down and allow current to flow backward through the diode. This reverse voltage (sometimes called PIV, for peak inverse voltage, or PRV for peak reverse voltage) is an important specification for diodes you use in your circuits, as you need to ensure that your diodes won't be exposed to more than their PIV rating.

Besides the forward-voltage drop and peak inverse voltage, diodes are also rated for a maximum current rating. Exceed this current, and the diode will be damaged beyond repair.

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