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In electronics, a diode is a component that restricts the direction of movement of charge carriers. It allows an electric current to flow in one direction, but essentially blocks it in the opposite direction. Thus the diode can be thought of as an electronic version of a check valve. Circuits that require current flowing in only one direction will typically consist of one or more diodes in the circuit design.

Early diodes included "cat's whisker" crystals and vacuum tube devices (called thermionic valves in British English). Today the most common diodes are made from ultrapure semiconductor materials such as silicon or germanium.


Thermionic and solid state diodes developed in parallel. The principle of operation of thermionic diodes was discovered by Frederick Guthrie in 1873 [1]. The principle of operation of crystal diodes was discovered in 1874 by the German scientist, Karl Ferdinand Braun [2].

Thermionic diode principles were rediscovered by Thomas Edison on February 13, 1880 and he took out a patent in 1883 (U.S. Patent 307031), but developed the idea no further. Braun patented the crystal rectifier in 1899 [3]. The first radio receiver using a crystal diode was built around 1900 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[4]) on November 16, 1904 (U.S. Patent 803684 in November 1905). Pickard received a patent for a silicon crystal detector on November 20, 1906 [5] (U.S. Patent 836531).

At the time of their invention such devices were known as rectifiers. In 1919 William Henry Eccles coined the term diode from Greek roots; di means 'two', and ode means 'path'.

Thermionic or gaseous state diodes

Vacuum tube diode symbol

Thermionic diodes are vacuum tube devices (also known as thermionic valves), which are arrangements of electrodes surrounded by a vacuum within a glass envelope, similar in appearance to incandescent light bulbs.

In vacuum tube diodes, a current is passed through the cathode, a filament treated with a mixture of barium and strontium oxides, which are oxides of alkaline earth metals. The current heats the filament, causing thermionic emission of electrons into the vacuum envelope. 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 vacuum tube diodes were used in analog signal applications, and as rectifiers in power supplies. Today, tube diodes are only used in niche applications, such as rectifiers in tube guitar and hi-fi amplifiers, and specialized high-voltage equipment.

Semiconductor diodes

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 not 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, or I-V, characteristic curve is ascribed to the behavior of the so-called depletion layer or depletion zone which exists at the p-n junction between the 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, the hole vanishes and the electron is no longer mobile. Thus, two charge carriers have vanished. 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 a significant electric current. 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'.

I-V characteristics of a P-N junction diode (not to scale).

A diode's I-V characteristic can be approximated by two regions of operation. Below a certain difference in potential between the two leads, the depletion layer has significant width, and the diode can be thought of as an open (non-conductive) circuit. As the potential difference is increased, at some stage the diode will become conductive and allow charges to flow, at which point it can be thought of as a connection with zero (or at least very low) resistance. More precisely, the transfer function is logarithmic, but so sharp that it looks like a corner on a zoomed-out graph (see also signal processing).

In a normal silicon diode at rated currents, the voltage drop across a conducting diode is approximately 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 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can be 1.4 V or more (Blue LEDs can be up to 4.0 V).

Referring to the I-V characteristics image, in the reverse bias region for a normal P-N rectifier diode, the current through the device is very low (in the ľA range) for all reverse voltages upto a point called the peak-inverse-voltage (PIV). Beyond this point a process called reverse breakdown occurs which causes the device to be damaged along with a large increase in current. For special purpose diodes like the avalanche or zener diodes, the concept of PIV is not applicable since they have a deliberate breakdown beyond a known reverse current such that the reverse voltage is "clamped" to a known value (called zener voltage). The devices however have a maximum limit to the current and power in the zener or avalanche region.

Shockley diode equation

The Shockley ideal diode equation (named after William Bradford Shockley) can be used to approximate the p-n diode's I-V characteristic in the forward-bias region.

I=I_\mathrm{S} \left( {e^{V_\mathrm{D} \over {n V_\mathrm{T}}}-1} \right)\,,


I is the diode current,

IS is a scale factor called the saturation current,

VD is the voltage across the diode

VT is the thermal voltage

and n is the emission coefficient.

The emission coefficient n varies from about 1 to 2 depending on the fabrication process and semiconductor material and in many cases is assumed to be approximately equal to 1 (thus ommitted). The thermal voltage VT is approximately 25.2 mV at room temperature (approximately 25oC or 298K) and is a known constant. It is defined by:

V_\mathrm{T} = \frac{k T}{q} ,


q is the charge on an electron (the elementary charge),

k is Boltzmann's constant,

T is the absolute temperature of the p-n junction.

Types of semiconductor diode


Diode Diode

Diode Light-Emitting

Diode Zener

Diode Schottky


There are several types of semiconductor junction diodes:

Normal (p-n) diodes

which operate as described above. 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.

'Gold doped' diodes

As a dopant, gold (or platinum) acts as recombination centers, that help a fast recombination of minority carriers. This allows the diode to operate at signal frequencies, at the expense of a higher forward voltage drop [1]. A typical example is the 1N914.

Zener diodes

(pronounced /zi?n?r/) Diodes that can be made to conduct backwards. This effect, called Zener breakdown, occurs at a precisely defined voltage, allowing the diode to be used as a precision voltage reference. In practical voltage reference circuits Zener and switching diodes are connected in series and opposite directions to balance the temperature coefficient to near zero. Some devices labeled as high-voltage Zener diodes are actually avalanche diodes (see below). Two (equivalent) Zeners in series and in reverse order, in the same package, constitute a transient absorber (or Transorb, a registered trademark). They are named for Dr. Clarence Melvin Zener of Southern Illinois University, inventor of the device.

Avalanche diodes

diodes that conduct in the reverse direction when the reverse bias voltage exceeds the breakdown voltage. These are electrically very similar to Zener diodes, and are often mistakenly called Zener diodes, but break down by a different mechanism, the avalanche effect. This occurs when the reverse electric field across the p-n junction causes a wave of ionization, reminiscent of an avalanche, leading to a large current. Avalanche diodes are designed to break down at a well-defined reverse voltage without being destroyed. The difference between the avalanche diode (which has a reverse breakdown above about 6.2 V) and the Zener is that the channel length of the former exceeds the 'mean free path' of the electrons, so there are collisions between them on the way out. The only practical difference is that the two types have temperature coefficients of opposite polarities.

Transient voltage suppression (TVS) diodes

These are avalanche diodes designed specifically to protect other semiconductor devices from high-voltage transients. Their p-n junctions have a much larger cross-sectional area than those of a normal diode, allowing them to conduct large currents to ground without sustaining damage.


Semiconductors are subject to optical charge carrier generation and therefore most are packaged in light blocking material. If they are packaged in materials that allow light to pass, their photosensitivity can be utilized. Photodiodes can be used as solar cells, and in photometry.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

In a diode formed from a direct band-gap semiconductor, such as gallium arsenide, carriers that cross the junction emit photons when they recombine with the majority carrier on the other side. Depending on the material, wavelengths (or colors) from the infrared to the near ultraviolet may be produced. The forward potential of these diodes depends on the wavelength of the emitted photons: 1.2 V corresponds to red, 2.4 to violet. The first LEDs were red and yellow, and higher-frequency diodes have been developed over time. All LEDs are monochromatic; 'white' LEDs are actually combinations of three LEDs of a different color, or a blue LED with a yellow scintillator coating. LEDs can also be used as low-efficiency photodiodes in signal applications. An LED may be paired with a photodiode or phototransistor in the same package, to form an opto-isolator.

Laser diodes

When an LED-like structure is contained in a resonant cavity formed by polishing the parallel end faces, a laser can be formed. Laser diodes are commonly used in optical storage devices and for high speed optical communication.

Schottky diodes

Schottky diodes are constructed from a metal to semiconductor contact. They have a lower forward voltage drop than a standard PN junction diode. Their forward voltage drop at forward currents of about 1 mA is in the range 0.15 V to 0.45 V, which makes them useful in voltage clamping applications and prevention of transistor saturation. They can also be used as low loss rectifiers although their reverse leakage current is generally much higher than non Schottky rectifiers. Schottky diodes are majority carrier devices and so do not suffer from minority carrier storage problems that slow down most normal diodes. They also tend to have much lower junction capacitance than PN diodes and this contributes towards their high switching speed and their suitability in high speed circuits and RF devices such as mixers and detectors.

Snap-off or 'step recovery' diodes

The term 'step recovery' relates to the form of the reverse recovery characteristic of these devices. After a forward current has been passing in an SRD and the current is interrupted or reversed, the reverse conduction will cease very abruptly (as in a step waveform). SRDs can therefore provide very fast voltage transitions by the very sudden disappearance of the charge carriers.

Esaki or tunnel diodes

these have a region of operation showing negative resistance caused by quantum tunneling, thus allowing amplification of signals and very simple bistable circuits. These diodes are also the type most resistant to nuclear radiation.

Gunn diodes

these are similar to tunnel diodes in that they are made of materials such as GaAs or InP that exhibit a region of negative differential resistance. With appropriate biasing, dipole domains form and travel across the diode, allowing high frequency microwave oscillators to be built.

Peltier diodes

are used as sensors, heat engines for thermoelectric cooling. Charge carriers absorb and emit their band gap energies as heat.

There are other types of diodes, which all share the basic function of allowing electrical current to flow in only one direction, but with different methods of construction.

Point-contact diodes

These work the same as the junction semiconductor diodes described above, but its 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.

Cat's whisker or crystal diodes

These are a type of point contact diode. The cat's whisker diode consists of a thin or sharpened metal wire pressed against a semiconducting crystal, typically galena or a lump of coal. The wire forms the anode and the crystal forms the cathode. Cat's whisker diodes were also called crystal diodes and found application in crystal radio receivers.

Varicap or varactor diodes

These are used as voltage-controlled capacitors. These were important in PLL (phase-locked loop) and FLL (frequency-locked loop) circuits, allowing tuning circuits, such as those in television receivers, to lock quickly, replacing older designs that took a long time to warm up and lock. A PLL is faster than a FLL, but prone to integer harmonic locking (if one attempts to lock to a broadband signal). They also enabled tunable oscillators in early discrete tuning of radios, where a cheap and stable, but fixed-frequency, crystal oscillator provided the reference frequency for a voltage-controlled oscillator.

PIN diodes

A PIN diode has a central un-doped, or intrinsic, layer, forming a p-type / intrinsic / n-type structure. They are used as radio frequency switches, similar to varactor diodes but with a more sudden change in capacitance. They are also used as large volume ionizing radiation detectors and as photodetectors. PIN diodes are also used in power electronics, as their central layer can withstand high voltages. Furthermore, the PIN structure can be found in many power semiconductor devices, such as IGBTs, power MOSFETs, and thyristors.

Current-limiting field-effect diodes

These are actually a JFET with the gate shorted to the source, and function like a two-terminal current-limiting analog to the Zener diode; they allow a current through them to rise to a certain value, and then level off at a specific value. Also called CLDs, constant-current diodes, or current-regulating diodes. [6], [7]


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