Technology Remaking the World

sample diodes
Common diode packages.

How Diodes and Rectifiers Operate



A diode is an electrical device allowing current to move through it in one direction with far greater ease than in the other. The most common kind of diode in modern circuit design is the semiconductor diode, although other diode technologies exist. Semiconductor diodes are symbolized in schematic diagrams such as figures below. The term "diode" is customarily reserved for small signal devices. The term rectifier is used for power devices.

direction of current flow in a diode
Semiconductor diode schematic symbol: Arrows indicate the direction of electron current flow.

When placed in a simple battery-lamp circuit, the diode will either allow or prevent current through the lamp, depending on the polarity of the applied voltage.

direction of diode controls current Diode operation: (a) Current flow is permitted; the diode is forward biased. (b) Current flow is prohibited; the diode is reversed biased.

When the polarity of the battery is such that electrons are allowed to flow through the diode, the diode is said to be forward-biased. Conversely, when the battery is "backward" and the diode blocks current, the diode is said to be reverse-biased. A diode may be thought of as like a switch: "closed" when forward-biased and "open" when reverse-biased.

Oddly enough, the direction of the diode symbol's "arrowhead" points against the direction of electron flow. This is because the diode symbol was invented by engineers, who predominantly use conventional flow notation in their schematics, showing current as a flow of charge from the positive (+) side of the voltage source to the negative (-). This convention holds true for all semiconductor symbols possessing "arrowheads" the arrow points in the permitted direction of conventional flow, and against the permitted direction of electron flow.

Like check valves, diodes are voltage-operated devices. The essential difference between forward-bias and reverse-bias is the polarity of the voltage dropped across the diode. Let's take a closer look at the simple battery-diode-lamp circuit shown earlier, this time investigating voltage drops across the various components in figure below.

voltmeter checking diode
Diode circuit voltage measurements: (a) Forward biased. (b) Reverse biased.

A forward-biased diode conducts current and drops a small voltage across it, leaving most of the battery voltage dropped across the lamp. If the battery's polarity is reversed, the diode becomes reverse-biased, and drops all of the battery's voltage leaving none for the lamp. If we consider the diode to be a self-actuating switch (closed in the forward-bias mode and open in the reverse-bias mode), this behavior makes sense. The most substantial difference is that the diode drops a lot more voltage when conducting than the average mechanical switch (0.7 volts).

This forward-bias voltage drop exhibited by the diode is due to the action of the depletion region formed by the P-N junction under the influence of an applied voltage. If no voltage applied is across a semiconductor diode, a thin depletion region exists around the region of the P-N junction, preventing current flow. (Figure below (a)) The depletion region is almost devoid of available charge carriers, and acts as an insulator.

diode outline

Diode representations: PN-junction model, schematic symbol, physical part.

The schematic symbol of the diode is shown in the figure above (b) such that the anode (pointing end) corresponds to the P-type semiconductor at (a). The cathode bar, non-pointing end, at (b) corresponds to the N-type material at (a). Also note that the cathode stripe on the physical part (c) corresponds to the cathode on the symbol.

diode outline

If a reverse-biasing voltage is applied across the P-N junction, this depletion region expands, further resisting any current through it. (above)

biasing a diode
Increasing forward bias from (a) to (b) decreases depletion region thickness.

Conversely, if a forward-biasing voltage is applied across the P-N junction, the depletion region collapses becoming thinner. The diode becomes less resistive to current through it. In order for a sustained current to go through the diode; though, the depletion region must be fully collapsed by the applied voltage. This takes a certain minimum voltage to accomplish, called the forward voltage as illustrated above.

For silicon diodes, the typical forward voltage is 0.7 volts, nominal. For germanium diodes, the forward voltage is only 0.3 volts. The chemical constituency of the P-N junction comprising the diode accounts for its nominal forward voltage figure, which is why silicon and germanium diodes have such different forward voltages.

Forward voltage drop remains approximately constant for a wide range of diode currents, meaning that diode voltage drop is not like that of a resistor or even a normal (closed) switch. For most simplified circuit analysis, the voltage drop across a conducting diode may be considered constant at the nominal figure and not related to the amount of current.

A reverse-biased diode prevents current from going through it, due to the expanded depletion region. In actuality, a very small amount of current can and does go through a reverse-biased diode, called the leakage current, but it can be ignored for most purposes. The ability of a diode to withstand reverse-bias voltages is limited, as it is for any insulator.

If the applied reverse-bias voltage becomes too great, the diode will experience a condition known as breakdown, which is usually destructive. A diode's maximum reverse-bias voltage rating is known as the Peak Inverse Voltage, or PIV, and may be obtained from the manufacturer. Like forward voltage, the PIV rating of a diode varies with temperature, except that PIV increases with increased temperature and decreases as the diode becomes cooler -- exactly opposite that of forward voltage.

Typically, the PIV rating of a generic rectifier diode is at least 50 volts at room temperature. Diodes with PIV ratings in the many thousands of volts are available for modest prices.

  • A diode is an electrical component acting as a one-way valve for current.
  • When voltage is applied across a diode in such a way that the diode allows current, the diode is said to be forward-biased.
  • When voltage is applied across a diode in such a way that the diode prohibits current, the diode is said to be reverse-biased.
  • The voltage dropped across a conducting, forward-biased diode is called the forward voltage. Forward voltage for a diode varies only slightly for changes in forward current and temperature, and is fixed by the chemical composition of the P-N junction.
  • Silicon diodes have a forward voltage of approximately 0.7 volts.
  • Germanium diodes have a forward voltage of approximately 0.3 volts.
  • The maximum reverse-bias voltage that a diode can withstand without "breaking down" is called the Peak Inverse Voltage, or PIV rating.