1. Semiconductor Theory

To understand why solid-state devices function as they do, we will have to examine closely the composition and nature of semiconductors. This entails theory that is fundamental to the study of solid- state devices.

Rather than beginning with theory, let’s first become reacquainted with some of the basic information you studied earlier concerning matter and energy (NEETS, Module 1).

1.1. Atomic Structure

The universe, as we know it today, is divided into two parts: matter and energy. Matter, which is our main concern at this time, is anything that occupies space and has weight. Rocks, water, air, automobiles, clothing, and even our own bodies are good examples of matter. From this, we can conclude that matter may be found in any one of three states: SOLIDS, LIQUIDS, and GASES. All matter is composed of either an element or combination of elements. As you know, an element is a substance that cannot be reduced to a simpler form by chemical means. Examples of elements with which you are in contact everyday are iron, gold, silver, copper, and oxygen. At present, there are over 100 known elements of which all matter is composed.

As we work our way down the size scale, we come to the atom, the smallest particle into which an element can be broken down and still retain all its original properties. The atoms of one element, however, differ from the atoms of all other elements. Since there are over 100 known elements, there must be over 100 different atoms, or a different atom for each element.

Now let us consider more than one element at a time. This brings us to the term "compound." A compound is a chemical combination of two or more elements. Water, table salt, ethyl alcohol, and ammonia are all examples of compounds. The smallest part of a compound, which has all the characteristics of the compound, is the molecule. Each molecule contains some of the atoms of each of the elements forming the compound.

Consider sugar, for example. Sugar in general terms is matter, since it occupies space and has weight. It is also a compound because it consists of two or more elements. Take a lump of sugar and crush it into small particles; each of the particles still retains its original identifying properties of sugar. The only thing that changed was the physical size of the sugar. If we continue this subdividing process by grinding the sugar into a fine power, the results are the same. Even dissolving sugar in water does not change its identifying properties, in spite of the fact that the particles of sugar are now too small to be seen even with a microscope. Eventually, we end up with a quantity of sugar that cannot be further divided without its ceasing to be sugar. This quantity is known as a molecule of sugar. If the molecule is further divided, it is found to consist of three simpler kinds of matter: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These simpler forms are called elements. Therefore, since elements consist of atoms, then a molecule of sugar is made up of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

As we investigate the atom, we find that it is basically composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Furthermore, the electrons, protons, and neutrons of one element are identical to those of any other element. There are different kinds of elements because the number and the arrangement of electrons and protons are different for each element.

The electron carries a small negative charge of electricity. The proton carries a positive charge of electricity equal and opposite to the charge of the electron. Scientists have measured the mass and size of the electron and proton, and they know how much charge each possesses. Both the electron and proton have the same quantity of charge, although the mass of the proton is approximately 1,827 times that of the electron. In some atoms there exists a neutral particle called a neutron. The neutron has a mass approximately equal to that of a proton, but it has no electrical charge.

According to theory, the electrons, protons, and neutrons of the atoms are thought to be arranged in a manner similar to a miniature solar system. Notice the helium atom in Figure 1. Two protons and two neutrons form the heavy nucleus with a positive charge around which two very light electrons revolve. The path each electron takes around the nucleus is called an orbit. The electrons are continuously being acted upon in their orbits by the force of attraction of the nucleus. To maintain an orbit around the nucleus, the electrons travel at a speed that produces a counterforce equal to the attraction force of the nucleus. Just as energy is required to move a space vehicle away from the earth, energy is also required to move an electron away from the nucleus. Like a space vehicle, the electron is said to be at a higher energy level when it travels a larger orbit. Scientific experiments have shown that the electron requires a certain amount of energy to stay in orbit. This quantity is called the electron’s energy level. By virtue of just its motion alone, the electron contains kinetic energy. Because of its position, it also contains potential energy. The total energy contained by an electron (kinetic energy plus potential energy) is the main factor that determines the radius of the electron’s orbit. For an electron to remain in this orbit, it must neither gain nor lose energy.

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Figure 1. The composition of a simple helium atom.

The orbiting electrons do not follow random paths, instead they are confined to definite energy levels. Visualize these levels as shells with each successive shell being spaced a greater distance from the nucleus. The shells, and the number of electrons required to fill them, may be predicted by using Pauli’s exclusion principle. Simply stated, this principle specifies that each shell will contain a maximum of 2n2 electrons, where n corresponds to the shell number starting with the one closest to the nucleus. By this principle, the second shell, for example, would contain 2(2)2 or 8 electrons when full.

In addition to being numbered, the shells are also given letter designations starting with the shell closest to the nucleus and progressing outward as shown in Figure 2. The shells are considered to be full, or complete, when they contain the following quantities of electrons: 2 in the K(1st) shell, 8 in the L(2nd) shell, 18 in the M(3rd) shell, and so on, in accordance with the exclusion principle. Each of these shells is a major shell and can be divided into subshells, of which there are four, labeled s, p, d, and f. Like the major shells, the subshells are also limited as to the number of electrons they contain. Thus, the "s" subshell is complete when it contains 2 electrons, the "p" subshell when it contains 6, the "d" subshell when it contains 10, and the "f" subshell when it contains 14 electrons.

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Figure 2. Shell designation.

Inasmuch as the K shell can contain no more than 2 electrons, it must have only one subshell, the s subshell. The M shell is composed of three subshells: s, p, and d. If the electrons in the s, p, and d subshells are added together, their total is found to be 18, the exact number required to fill the M shell. Notice the electron configuration of copper illustrated in Figure 3. The copper atom contains 29 electrons, which completely fill the first three shells and subshells, leaving one electron in the "s" subshell of the N shell. A list of all the other known elements, with the number of electrons in each atom, is contained in the PERIODIC TABLE OF ELEMENTS. The periodic table of elements is included in appendix 2.

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Figure 3. Copper atom.

Valence is an atom’s ability to combine with other atoms. The number of electrons in the outermost shell of an atom determines its valence. For this reason, the outer shell of an atom is called VALENCE SHELL, and the electrons contained in this shell are called VALENCE ELECTRONS. The valence of an atom determines its ability to gain or lose an electron, which in turn determines the chemical and electrical properties of the atom. An atom that is lacking only one or two electrons from its outer shell will easily gain electrons to complete its shell, but a large amount of energy is required to free any of its electrons. An atom having a relatively small number of electrons in its outer shell in comparison to the number of electrons required to fill the shell will easily lose these valence electrons. The valence shell always refers to the outermost shell.


Define matter and list its three different states.


What is the smallest particle into which an element can be broken down and still retain all its original properties?


What are the three particles that comprise an atom and state the type of charge they hold?


What is the outer shell of an atom called?

1.2. Energy Bands

Now that you have become reacquainted with matter and energy, we will continue our discussion with electron behavior. As stated earlier, orbiting electrons contain energy and are confined to definite energy levels. The various shells in an atom represent these levels. Therefore, to move an electron from a lower shell to a higher shell a certain amount of energy is required. This energy can be in the form of electric fields, heat, light, and even bombardment by other particles. Failure to provide enough energy to the electron, even if the energy supplied is just short of the required amount, will cause it to remain at its present energy level. Supplying more energy than is needed will only cause the electron to move to the next higher shell and the remaining energy will be wasted. In simple terms, energy is required in definite units to move electrons from one shell to the next higher shell. These units are called QUANTA (for example 1, 2, or 3 quanta).

Electrons can also lose energy as well as receive it. When an electron loses energy, it moves to a lower shell. The lost energy, in some cases, appears as heat.

If a sufficient amount of energy is absorbed by an electron, it is possible for that electron to be completely removed from the influence of the atom. This is called IONIZATION. When an atom loses electrons or gains electrons in this process of electron exchange, it is said to be ionized. For ionization to take place, there must be a transfer of energy that results in a change in the internal energy of the atom. An atom having more than its normal amount of electrons acquires a negative charge, and is called a NEGATIVE ION. The atom that gives up some of its normal electrons is left with fewer negative charges than positive charges and is called a POSITIVE ION. Thus, we can define ionization as the process by which an atom loses or gains electrons.

Up to this point in our discussion, we have spoken only of isolated atoms. When atoms are spaced far enough apart, as in a gas, they have very little influence upon each other, and are very much like lone atoms. But atoms within a solid have a marked effect upon each other. The forces that bind these atoms together greatly modify the behavior of the other electrons. One consequence of this close proximity of atoms is to cause the individual energy levels of an atom to break up and form bands of energy. Discrete (separate and complete) energy levels still exist within these energy bands, but there are many more energy levels than there were with the isolated atom. In some cases, energy levels will have disappeared. Figure 4 shows the difference in the energy arrangement between an isolated atom and the atom in a solid. Notice that the isolated atom (such as in gas) has energy levels, whereas the atom in a solid has energy levels grouped into ENERGY BANDS.

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Figure 4. The energy arrangement in atoms.

The upper band in the solid lines in figure 1-5 is called the CONDUCTION BAND because electrons in this band are easily removed by the application of external electric fields. Materials that have a large number of electrons in the conduction band act as good conductors of electricity.

Below the conduction band is the FORBIDDEN BAND or energy gap. Electrons are never found in this band, but may travel back and forth through it, provided they do not come to rest in the band.

The last band or VALENCE BAND is composed of a series of energy levels containing valence electrons. Electrons in this band are more tightly bound to the individual atom than the electrons in the conduction band. However, the electrons in the valence band can still be moved to the conduction band with the application of energy, usually thermal energy. There are more bands below the valence band, but they are not important to the understanding of semiconductor theory and will not be discussed.

The concept of energy bands is particularly important in classifying materials as conductors, semiconductors, and insulators. An electron can exist in either of two energy bands, the conduction band or the valence band. All that is necessary to move an electron from the valence band to the conduction band so it can be used for electric current, is enough energy to carry the electron through the forbidden band. The width of the forbidden band or the separation between the conduction and valence bands determines whether a substance is an insulator, semiconductor, or conductor. Figure 5 uses energy level diagrams to show the difference between insulators, semiconductors, and conductors.

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Figure 5. Energy level diagram.

The energy diagram for the insulator shows the insulator with a very wide energy gap. The wider this gap, the greater the amount of energy required to move the electron from the valence band to the conduction band. Therefore, an insulator requires a large amount of energy to obtain a small amount of current. The insulator "insulates" because of the wide forbidden band or energy gap.

The semiconductor, on the other hand, has a smaller forbidden band and requires less energy to move an electron from the valence band to the conduction band. Therefore, for a certain amount of applied voltage, more current will flow in the semiconductor than in the insulator.

The last energy level diagram in figure 1-6 is that of a conductor. Notice, there is no forbidden band or energy gap and the valence and conduction bands overlap. With no energy gap, it takes a small amount of energy to move electrons into the conduction band; consequently, conductors pass electrons very easily.


What term is used to describe the definite discrete amounts of energy required to move an electron from a low shell to a higher shell?


What is a negative ion?


What is the main difference in the energy arrangement between an isolated atom and the atom in a solid?


What determines, in terms of energy bands, whether a substance is a good insulator, semiconductor, or conductor?

1.3. Covalent Bonding

The chemical activity of an atom is determined by the number of electrons in its valence shell. When the valence shell is complete, the atom is stable and shows little tendency to combine with other atoms to form solids. Only atoms that possess eight valence electrons have a complete outer shell. These atoms are referred to as inert or inactive atoms. However, if the valence shell of an atom lacks the required number of electrons to complete the shell, then the activity of the atom increases.

Silicon and germanium, for example, are the most frequently used semiconductors. Both are quite similar in their structure and chemical behavior. Each has four electrons in the valence shell. Consider just silicon. Since it has fewer than the required number of eight electrons needed in the outer shell, its atoms will unite with other atoms until eight electrons are shared. This gives each atom a total of eight electrons in its valence shell; four of its own and four that it borrowed from the surrounding atoms. The sharing of valence electrons between two or more atoms produces a COVALENT BOND between the atoms. It is this bond that holds the atoms together in an orderly structure called a CRYSTAL. A crystal is just another name for a solid whose atoms or molecules are arranged in a three-dimensional geometrical pattern commonly referred to as a lattice. Figure 6 shows a typical crystal structure. Each sphere in the figure represents the nucleus of an atom, and the arms that join the atoms and support the structure are the covalent bonds.

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Figure 6. A typical crystal structure.

As a result of this sharing process, the valence electrons are held tightly together. This can best be illustrated by the two-dimensional view of the silicon lattice in Figure 7. The circles in the figure represent the nuclei of the atoms. The +4 in the circles is the net charge of the nucleus plus the inner shells (minus the valence shell). The short lines indicate valence electrons. Because every atom in this pattern is bonded to four other atoms, the electrons are not free to move within the crystal. As a result of this bonding, pure silicon and germanium are poor conductors of electricity. The reason they are not insulators but semiconductors is that with the proper application of heat or electrical pressure, electrons can be caused to break free of their bonds and move into the conduction band. Once in this band, they wander aimlessly through the crystal.

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Figure 7. A two-dimensional view of a silicon cubic lattice.

What determines the chemical activity of an atom?


What is the term used to describe the sharing of valence electrons between two or more atoms?

1.4. Conduction Process

As stated earlier, energy can be added to electrons by applying heat. When enough energy is absorbed by the valence electrons, it is possible for them to break some of their covalent bonds. Once the bonds are broken, the electrons move to the conduction band where they are capable of supporting electric current. When a voltage is applied to a crystal containing these conduction band electrons, the electrons move through the crystal toward the applied voltage. This movement of electrons in a semiconductor is referred to as electron current flow.

There is still another type of current in a pure semiconductor. This current occurs when a covalent bond is broken and a vacancy is left in the atom by the missing valence electron. This vacancy is commonly referred to as a "hole." The hole is considered to have a positive charge because its atom is deficient by one electron, which causes the protons to outnumber the electrons. As a result of this hole, a chain reaction begins when a nearby electron breaks its own covalent bond to fill the hole, leaving another hole. Then another electron breaks its bond to fill the previous hole, leaving still another hole. Each time an electron in this process fills a hole, it enters into a covalent bond. Even though an electron has moved from one covalent bond to another, the most important thing to remember is that the hole is also moving. Therefore, since this process of conduction resembles the movement of holes rather than electrons, it is termed hole flow (short for hole current flow or conduction by holes). Hole flow is very similar to electron flow except that the holes move toward a negative potential and in an opposite direction to that of the electron. Since hole flow results from the breaking of covalent bonds, which are at the valence band level, the electrons associated with this type of conduction contain only valence band energy and must remain in the valence band. However, the electrons associated with electron flow have conduction band energy and can, therefore, move throughout the crystal. A good analogy of hole flow is the movement of a hole through a tube filled with balls (Figure 8).

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Figure 8. Analogy of hole flow.

When ball number 1 is removed from the tube, a hole is left. This hole is then filled by ball number 2, which leaves still another hole. Ball number 3 then moves into the hole left by ball number 2. This causes still another hole to appear where ball 3 was. Notice the holes are moving to the right side of the tube. This action continues until all the balls have moved one space to the left in which time the hole moved eight spaces to the right and came to rest at the right-hand end of the tube.

In the theory just described, two current carriers were created by the breaking of covalent bonds: the negative electron and the positive hole. These carriers are referred to as electron-hole pairs. Since the semiconductor we have been discussing contains no impurities, the number of holes in the electron-hole pairs is always equal to the number of conduction electrons. Another way of describing this condition where no impurities exist is by saying the semiconductor is INTRINSIC. The term intrinsic is also used to distinguish the pure semiconductor that we have been working with from one containing impurities.


Name the two types of current flow in a semiconductor.


What is the name given to a piece of pure semiconductor material that has an equal number of electrons and holes?

1.5. Doping Process

The pure semiconductor mentioned earlier is basically neutral. It contains no free electrons in its conduction bands. Even with the application of thermal energy, only a few covalent bonds are broken, yielding a relatively small current flow. A much more efficient method of increasing current flow in semiconductors is by adding very small amounts of selected additives to them, generally no more than a few parts per million. These additives are called impurities and the process of adding them to crystals is referred to as DOPING. The purpose of semiconductor doping is to increase the number of free charges that can be moved by an external applied voltage. When an impurity increases the number of free electrons, the doped semiconductor is NEGATIVE or N TYPE, and the impurity that is added is known as an N-type impurity. However, an impurity that reduces the number of free electrons, causing more holes, creates a POSITIVE or P-TYPE semiconductor, and the impurity that was added to it is known as a P-type impurity. Semiconductors which are doped in this manner — either with N- or P-type impurities — are referred to as EXTRINSIC semiconductors.

1.5.1. N-Type Semiconductor

The N-type impurity loses its extra valence electron easily when added to a semiconductor material, and in so doing, increases the conductivity of the material by contributing a free electron. This type of impurity has 5 valence electrons and is called a PENTAVALENT impurity. Arsenic, antimony, bismuth, and phosphorous are pentavalent impurities. Because these materials give or donate one electron to the doped material, they are also called DONOR impurities.

When a pentavalent (donor) impurity, like arsenic, is added to germanium, it will form covalent bonds with the germanium atoms. Figure 9 illustrates this by showing an arsenic atom (AS) in a germanium (GE) lattice structure. Notice the arsenic atom in the center of the lattice. It has 5 valence electrons in its outer shell but uses only 4 of them to form covalent bonds with the germanium atoms, leaving 1 electron relatively free in the crystal structure. Pure germanium may be converted into an N-type semiconductor by "doping" it with any donor impurity having 5 valence electrons in its outer shell. Since this type of semiconductor (N-type) has a surplus of electrons, the electrons are considered MAJORITY carriers, while the holes, being few in number, are the MINORITY carriers.

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Figure 9. Germanium crystal doped with arsenic.

1.5.2. P-Type Semiconductor

The second type of impurity, when added to a semiconductor material, tends to compensate for its deficiency of 1 valence electron by acquiring an electron from its neighbor. Impurities of this type have only 3 valence electrons and are called TRIVALENT impurities. Aluminum, indium, gallium, and boron are trivalent impurities. Because these materials accept 1 electron from the doped material, they are also called ACCEPTOR impurities.

A trivalent (acceptor) impurity element can also be used to dope germanium. In this case, the impurity is 1 electron short of the required amount of electrons needed to establish covalent bonds with 4 neighboring atoms. Thus, in a single covalent bond, there will be only 1 electron instead of 2. This arrangement leaves a hole in that covalent bond. Figure 10 illustrates this theory by showing what happens when germanium is doped with an indium (In) atom. Notice, the indium atom in the figure is 1 electron short of the required amount of electrons needed to form covalent bonds with 4 neighboring atoms and, therefore, creates a hole in the structure. Gallium and boron, which are also trivalent impurities, exhibit these same characteristics when added to germanium. The holes can only be present in this type semiconductor when a trivalent impurity is used. Note that a hole carrier is not created by the removal of an electron from a neutral atom, but is created when a trivalent impurity enters into covalent bonds with a tetravalent (4 valence electrons) crystal structure. The holes in this type of semiconductor (P-type) are considered the MAJORITY carriers since they are present in the material in the greatest quantity. The electrons, on the other hand, are the MINORITY carriers.

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Figure 10. Germanium crystal doped with indium.

What is the name given to a doped germanium crystal with an excess of free holes?


What are the majority carriers in an N-type semiconductor?

2. Semiconductor Diode

If we join a section of N-type semiconductor material with a similar section of P-type semiconductor material, we obtain a device known as a PN JUNCTION. (The area where the N and P regions meet is appropriately called the junction.) The usual characteristics of this device make it extremely useful in electronics as a diode rectifier. The diode rectifier or PN junction diode performs the same function as its counterpart in electron tubes but in a different way. The diode is nothing more than a two-element semiconductor device that makes use of the rectifying properties of a PN junction to convert alternating current into direct current by permitting current flow in only one direction. The schematic symbol of a PN junction diode is shown in Figure 11. The vertical bar represents the cathode (N-type material) since it is the source of electrons and the arrow represents the anode (P-type material) since it is the destination of the electrons. The label "CR1" is an alphanumerical code used to identify the diode. In this figure, we have only one diode so it is labeled CR1 (crystal rectifier number one). If there were four diodes shown in the diagram, the last diode would be labeled CR4. The heavy dark line shows electron flow. Notice it is against the arrow. For further clarification, a pictorial diagram of a PN junction and an actual semiconductor (one of many types) are also illustrated.

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Figure 11. The PN junction diode.

2.1. Construction

Merely pressing together a section of P material and a section of N material, however, is not sufficient to produce a rectifying junction. The semiconductor should be in one piece to form a proper PN junction, but divided into a P-type impurity region and an N-type impurity region. This can be done in various ways. One way is to mix P-type and N-type impurities into a single crystal during the manufacturing process. By so doing, a P-region is grown over part of a semiconductor’s length and N- region is grown over the other part. This is called a GROWN junction and is illustrated in view A of Figure 12. Another way to produce a PN junction is to melt one type of impurity into a semiconductor of the opposite type impurity. For example, a pellet of acceptor impurity is placed on a wafer of N-type germanium and heated. Under controlled temperature conditions, the acceptor impurity fuses into the wafer to form a P-region within it, as shown in view B of Figure 12. This type of junction is known as an ALLOY or FUSED-ALLOY junction, and is one of the most commonly used junctions.

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Figure 12. Grown and fused PN junctions from which bars are cut.

In Figure 13 and Figure 14 a POINT-CONTACT type of construction is shown. It consists of a fine metal wire, called a cat whisker, that makes contact with a small area on the surface of an N-type semiconductor as shown in Figure 13 (view A) of the figure. The PN union is formed in this process by momentarily applying a high-surge current to the wire and the N-type semiconductor. The heat generated by this current converts the material nearest the point of contact to a P-type material Figure 14 (view B).

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Figure 13. The point-contact type of diode construction (view A).
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Figure 14. The point-contact type of diode construction (view B).

Still another process is to heat a section of semiconductor material to near melting and then diffuse impurity atoms into a surface layer. Regardless of the process, the objective is to have a perfect bond everywhere along the union (interface) between P and N materials. Proper contact along the union is important because, as we will see later, the union (junction or interface) is the rectifying agent in the diode.


What is the purpose of a PN junction diode?


In reference to the schematic symbol for a diode, do electrons flow toward or away from the arrow?


What type of PN diode is formed by using a fine metal wire and a section of N-type semiconductor material?

2.2. Pn Junction Operation

Now that you are familiar with P- and N-type materials, how these materials are joined together to form a diode, and the function of the diode, let us continue our discussion with the operation of the PN junction. But before we can understand how the PN junction works, we must first consider current flow in the materials that make up the junction and what happens initially within the junction when these two materials are joined together.

2.2.1. Current Flow in the N-Type Material

Conduction in the N-type semiconductor, or crystal, is similar to conduction in a copper wire. That is, with voltage applied across the material, electrons will move through the crystal just as current would flow in a copper wire. This is shown in Figure 15. The positive potential of the battery will attract the free electrons in the crystal. These electrons will leave the crystal and flow into the positive terminal of the battery. As an electron leaves the crystal, an electron from the negative terminal of the battery will enter the crystal, thus completing the current path. Therefore, the majority current carriers in the N-type material (electrons) are repelled by the negative side of the battery and move through the crystal toward the positive side of the battery.

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Figure 15. Current flow In the N-type material.

2.2.2. Current Flow in the P-Type Material

Current flow through the P-type material is illustrated in Figure 16. Conduction in the P material is by positive holes, instead of negative electrons. A hole moves from the positive terminal of the P material to the negative terminal. Electrons from the external circuit enter the negative terminal of the material and fill holes in the vicinity of this terminal. At the positive terminal, electrons are removed from the covalent bonds, thus creating new holes. This process continues as the steady stream of holes (hole current) moves toward the negative terminal.

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Figure 16. Current flow In the P-type material..

Notice in both N-type and P-type materials, current flow in the external circuit consists of electrons moving out of the negative terminal of the battery and into the positive terminal of the battery. Hole flow, on the other hand, only exists within the material itself.


What are the majority carriers in a P-type semiconductor?


Conduction in which type of semiconductor material is similar to conduction in a copper wire?

2.2.3. Junction Barrier

Although the N-type material has an excess of free electrons, it is still electrically neutral. This is because the donor atoms in the N material were left with positive charges after free electrons became available by covalent bonding (the protons outnumbered the electrons). Therefore, for every free electron in the N material, there is a corresponding positively charge atom to balance it. The end result is that the N material has an overall charge of zero.

By the same reasoning, the P-type material is also electrically neutral because the excess of holes in this material is exactly balanced by the number of electrons. Keep in mind that the holes and electrons are still free to move in the material because they are only loosely bound to their parent atoms.

It would seem that if we joined the N and P materials together by one of the processes mentioned earlier, all the holes and electrons would pair up. On the contrary, this does not happen. Instead the electrons in the N material diffuse (move or spread out) across the junction into the P material and fill some of the holes. At the same time, the holes in the P material diffuse across the junction into the N material and are filled by N material electrons. This process, called JUNCTION RECOMBINATION, reduces the number of free electrons and holes in the vicinity of the junction. Because there is a depletion, or lack of free electrons and holes in this area, it is known as the DEPLETION REGION.

The loss of an electron from the N-type material created a positive ion in the N material, while the loss of a hole from the P material created a negative ion in that material. These ions are fixed in place in the crystal lattice structure and cannot move. Thus, they make up a layer of fixed charges on the two sides of the junction as shown in Figure 17. On the N side of the junction, there is a layer of positively charged ions; on the P side of the junction, there is a layer of negatively charged ions. An electrostatic field, represented by a small battery in the figure, is established across the junction between the oppositely charged ions. The diffusion of electrons and holes across the junction will continue until the magnitude of the electrostatic field is increased to the point where the electrons and holes no longer have enough energy to overcome it, and are repelled by the negative and positive ions respectively. At this point equilibrium is established and, for all practical purposes, the movement of carriers across the junction ceases. For this reason, the electrostatic field created by the positive and negative ions in the depletion region is called a barrier.

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Figure 17. The PN junction barrier formation.

The action just described occurs almost instantly when the junction is formed. Only the carriers in the immediate vicinity of the junction are affected. The carriers throughout the remainder of the N and P material are relatively undisturbed and remain in a balanced condition. Forward Bias

An external voltage applied to a PN junction is call BIAS. If, for example, a battery is used to supply bias to a PN junction and is connected so that its voltage opposes the junction field, it will reduce the junction barrier and, therefore, aid current flow through the junction. This type of bias is known as forward bias, and it causes the junction to offer only minimum resistance to the flow of current.

Forward bias is illustrated in Figure 18. Notice the positive terminal of the bias battery is connected to the P-type material and the negative terminal of the battery is connected to the N-type material. The positive potential repels holes toward the junction where they neutralize some of the negative ions. At the same time the negative potential repels electrons toward the junction where they neutralize some of the positive ions. Since ions on both sides of the barrier are being neutralized, the width of the barrier decreases. Thus, the effect of the battery voltage in the forward-bias direction is to reduce the barrier potential across the junction and to allow majority carriers to cross the junction. Current flow in the forward-biased PN junction is relatively simple. An electron leaves the negative terminal of the battery and moves to the terminal of the N-type material. It enters the N material, where it is the majority carrier and moves to the edge of the junction barrier. Because of forward bias, the barrier offers less opposition to the electron and it will pass through the depletion region into the P-type material. The electron loses energy in overcoming the opposition of the junction barrier, and upon entering the P material, combines with a hole. The hole was produced when an electron was extracted from the P material by the positive potential of the battery. The created hole moves through the P material toward the junction where it combines with an electron.

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Figure 18. Forward-biased PN junction.

It is important to remember that in the forward biased condition, conduction is by MAJORITY current carriers (holes in the P-type material and electrons in the N-type material). Increasing the battery voltage will increase the number of majority carriers arriving at the junction and will therefore increase the current flow. If the battery voltage is increased to the point where the barrier is greatly reduced, a heavy current will flow and the junction may be damaged from the resulting heat. Reverse Bias

If the battery mentioned earlier is connected across the junction so that its voltage aids the junction, it will increase the junction barrier and thereby offer a high resistance to the current flow through the junction. This type of bias is known as reverse bias.

To reverse bias a junction diode, the negative battery terminal is connected to the P-type material, and the positive battery terminal to the N-type material as shown in Figure 19. The negative potential attracts the holes away from the edge of the junction barrier on the P side, while the positive potential attracts the electrons away from the edge of the barrier on the N side. This action increases the barrier width because there are more negative ions on the P side of the junction, and more positive ions on the N side of the junction. Notice in the figure the width of the barrier has increased. This increase in the number of ions prevents current flow across the junction by majority carriers. However, the current flow across the barrier is not quite zero because of the minority carriers crossing the junction. As you recall, when the crystal is subjected to an external source of energy (light, heat, etc.), electron-hole pairs are generated. The electron-hole pairs produce minority current carriers. There are minority current carriers in both regions: holes in the N material and electrons in the P material. With reverse bias, the electrons in the P-type material are repelled toward the junction by the negative terminal of the battery. As the electron moves across the junction, it will neutralize a positive ion in the N-type material. Similarly, the holes in the N-type material will be repelled by the positive terminal of the battery toward the junction. As the hole crosses the junction, it will neutralize a negative ion in the P-type material. This movement of minority carriers is called MINORITY CURRENT FLOW, because the holes and electrons involved come from the electron-hole pairs that are generated in the crystal lattice structure, and not from the addition of impurity atoms.

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Figure 19. Reverse-biased PN junction.

Therefore, when a PN junction is reverse biased, there will be no current flow because of majority carriers but a very small amount of current because of minority carriers crossing the junction. However, at normal operating temperatures, this small current may be neglected.

2.2.4. Summary

In summary, the most important point to remember about the PN junction diode is its ability to offer very little resistance to current flow in the forward-bias direction but maximum resistance to current flow when reverse biased. A good way of illustrating this point is by plotting a graph of the applied voltage versus the measured current. Figure 20 shows a plot of this voltage-current relationship (characteristic curve) for a typical PN junction diode.

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Figure 20. PN junction diode characteristic curve.

To determine the resistance from the curve in this figure we can use Ohm’s law:

\[R = \frac{E}{I}\]

For example at point A the forward-bias voltage is 1 volt and the forward-bias current is 5 milliamperes. This represents 200 ohms of resistance (1 volt/5mA = 200 ohms). However, at point B the voltage is 3 volts and the current is 50 milliamperes. This results in 60 ohms of resistance for the diode. Notice that when the forward-bias voltage was tripled (1 volt to 3 volts), the current increased 10 times (5mA to 50 mA). At the same time the forward-bias voltage increased, the resistance decreased from 200 ohms to 60 ohms. In other words, when forward bias increases, the junction barrier gets smaller and its resistance to current flow decreases.

On the other hand, the diode conducts very little when reverse biased. Notice at point C the reverse bias voltage is 80 volts and the current is only 100 microamperes. This results in 800 k ohms of resistance, which is considerably larger than the resistance of the junction with forward bias. Because of these unusual features, the PN junction diode is often used to convert alternating current into direct current (rectification).


What is the name of the area in a PN junction that has a shortage of electrons and holes?


In order to reverse bias in a PN junction, what terminal of a battery is connected to the P material?


What type of bias opposes the PN junction barrier?

2.3. Diode Characteristics

Semiconductor diodes have properties that enable them to perform many different electronic functions. To do their jobs, engineers and technicians must be supplied with data on these different types of diodes. The information presented for this purpose is called DIODE CHARACTERISTICS. These characteristics are supplied by manufacturers either in their manuals or on specification sheets (data sheets). Because of the scores of manufacturers and numerous diode types, it is not practical to put before you a specification sheet and call it typical. Aside from the difference between manufacturers, a single manufacturer may even supply specification sheets that differ both in format and content. Despite these differences, certain performance and design information is normally required. We will discuss this information in the next few paragraphs.

A standard specification sheet usually has a brief description of the diode. Included in this description is the type of diode, the major area of application, and any special features. Of particular interest is the specific application for which the diode is suited. The manufacturer also provides a drawing of the diode which gives dimension, weight, and, if appropriate, any identification marks. In addition to the above data, the following information is also provided: a static operating table (giving spot values of parameters under fixed conditions), sometimes a characteristic curve similar to the one in figure 1-20 (showing how parameters vary over the full operating range), and diode ratings (which are the limiting values of operating conditions outside which could cause diode damage).

Manufacturers specify these various diode operating parameters and characteristics with "letter symbols" in accordance with fixed definitions. The following is a list, by letter symbol, of the major electrical characteristics for the rectifier and signal diodes.


The maximum reverse dc voltage that will not cause breakdown.


The average forward voltage drop across the rectifier given at a specified forward current and temperature.


The average rectified forward current at a specified temperature, usually at 60 Hz with a resistive load.


The average reverse current at a specified temperature, usually at 60 Hz.


The peak current specified for a given number of cycles or portion of a cycle.


The maximum reverse voltage that can be applied before reaching the breakdown point. (PRV also applies to the rectifier diode.)


The small value of direct current that flows when a semiconductor diode has reverse bias.


The maximum forward voltage drop across the diode at the indicated forward current.


The maximum time taken for the forward-bias diode to recover its reverse bias.

The ratings of a diode (as stated earlier) are the limiting values of operating conditions, which if exceeded could cause damage to a diode by either voltage breakdown or overheating. The PN junction diodes are generally rated for: MAXIMUM AVERAGE FORWARD CURRENT, PEAK RECURRENT FORWARD CURRENT, MAXIMUM SURGE CURRENT, and PEAK REVERSE VOLTAGE.

Maximum average forward current is usually given at a special temperature, usually 25º C, (77º F) and refers to the maximum amount of average current that can be permitted to flow in the forward direction. If this rating is exceeded, structure breakdown can occur.

Peak recurrent forward current is the maximum peak current that can be permitted to flow in the forward direction in the form of recurring pulses.

Maximum surge current is the maximum current permitted to flow in the forward direction in the form of nonrecurring pulses. Current should not equal this value for more than a few milliseconds.

Peak reverse voltage (PRV) is one of the most important ratings. PRV indicates the maximum reverse-bias voltage that may be applied to a diode without causing junction breakdown.

All of the above ratings are subject to change with temperature variations. If, for example, the operating temperature is above that stated for the ratings, the ratings must be decreased.


What is used to show how diode parameters vary over a full operating range?


What is meant by diode ratings?

2.4. Diode Identification

There are many types of diodes varying in size from the size of a pinhead (used in subminiature circuitry) to large 250-ampere diodes (used in high-power circuits). Because there are so many different types of diodes, some system of identification is needed to distinguish one diode from another. This is accomplished with the semiconductor identification system shown in Figure 21. This system is not only used for diodes but transistors and many other special semiconductor devices as well. As illustrated in this figure, the system uses numbers and letters to identify different types of semiconductor devices. The first number in the system indicates the number of junctions in the semiconductor device and is a number, one less than the number of active elements. Thus 1 designates a diode; 2 designates a transistor (which may be considered as made up of two diodes); and 3 designates a tetrode (a four-element transistor). The letter "N" following the first number indicates a semiconductor. The 2- or 3-digit number following the letter "N" is a serialized identification number. If needed, this number may contain a suffix letter after the last digit. For example, the suffix letter "M" may be used to describe matching pairs of separate semiconductor devices or the letter "R" may be used to indicate reverse polarity. Other letters are used to indicate modified versions of the device which can be substituted for the basic numbered unit. For example, a semiconductor diode designated as type 1N345A signifies a two-element diode (1) of semiconductor material (N) that is an improved version (A) of type 345.

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Figure 21. Semiconductor identification codes.

When working with these different types of diodes, it is also necessary to distinguish one end of the diode from the other (anode from cathode). For this reason, manufacturers generally code the cathode end of the diode with a "k," "+," "cath," a color dot or band, or by an unusual shape (raised edge or taper) as shown in Figure 22. In some cases, standard color code bands are placed on the cathode end of the diode. This serves two purposes: (1) it identifies the cathode end of the diode, and (2) it also serves to identify the diode by number.

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Figure 22. Semiconductor diode markings.

The standard diode color code system is shown in Figure 23. Take, for example, a diode with brown, orange, and white bands at one terminal and figure out its identification number. With brown being a "1," orange a "3," and white "9," the device would be identified as a type 139 semiconductor diode, or specifically 1N139.

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Figure 23. Semiconductor diode color code system.

Keep in mind, whether the diode is a small crystal type or a large power rectifier type, both are still represented schematically, as explained earlier, by the schematic symbol shown in Figure 11.


What does the letter "N" indicate in the semiconductor identification system?


What type of diode has orange, blue, and gray bands?

2.5. Zener Diodes

When a PN-junction diode is reverse biased, the majority carriers (holes in the P-material and electrons in the N-material) move away from the junction. The barrier or depletion region becomes wider (as illustrated in Figure 24, Figure 25, and Figure 26) and majority carrier current flow becomes very difficult across the high resistance of the wide depletion region. The presence of minority carriers causes a small leakage current that remains nearly constant for all reverse voltages up to a certain value. Once this value has been exceeded, there is a sudden increase in the reverse current. The voltage at which the sudden increase in current occurs is called the BREAKDOWN VOLTAGE. At breakdown, the reverse current increases very rapidly with a slight increase in the reverse voltage. Any diode can be reverse biased to the point of breakdown, but not every diode can safely dissipate the power associated with breakdown. A Zener diode is a PN junction designed to operate in the reverse-bias breakdown region.

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Figure 24. Effects of bias on the depletion region of a PN junction (View A).
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Figure 25. Effects of bias on the depletion region of a PN junction (View B).
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Figure 26. Effects of bias on the depletion region of a PN junction (ViewC).

There are two distinct theories used to explain the behavior of PN junctions during breakdown: one is the ZENER EFFECT and the other is the AVALANCHE EFFECT.

The ZENER EFFECT was first proposed by Dr. Carl Zener in 1934. According to Dr. Zener’s theory, electrical breakdown in solid dielectrics occurs by a process called QUANTUM-MECHANICAL TUNNELING. The Zener effect accounts for the breakdown below 5 volts; whereas, above 5 volts the breakdown is caused by the avalanche effect. Although the avalanche effect is now accepted as an explanation of diode breakdown, the term Zener diode is used to cover both types.

The true Zener effect in semiconductors can be described in terms of energy bands; however, only the two upper energy bands are of interest. The two upper bands, illustrated in Figure 27, are called the conduction band and the valence band.

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Figure 27. Energy diagram for Zener diode.

The CONDUCTION BAND is a band in which the energy level of the electrons is high enough that the electrons will move easily under the influence of an external field. Since current flow is the movement of electrons, the readily mobile electrons in the conduction band are capable of maintaining a current flow when an external field in the form of a voltage is applied. Therefore, solid materials that have many electrons in the conduction band are called conductors.

The VALENCE BAND is a band in which the energy level is the same as the valence electrons of the atoms. Since the electrons in these levels are attached to the atoms, the electrons are not free to move around as are the conduction band electrons. With the proper amount of energy added, however, the electrons in the valence band may be elevated to the conduction band energy level. To do this, the electrons must cross a gap that exists between the valence band energy level and the conduction band energy level. This gap is known as the FORBIDDEN ENERGY BAND or FORBIDDEN GAP. The energy difference across this gap determines whether a solid material will act as a conductor, a semiconductor, or an insulator.

A conductor is a material in which the forbidden gap is so narrow that it can be considered nonexistent. A semiconductor is a solid that contains a forbidden gap, as shown in figure 3-2, view A. Normally, a semiconductor has no electrons at the conduction band energy level. The energy provided by room temperature heat, however, is enough energy to overcome the binding force of a few valence electrons and to elevate them to the conduction band energy level. The addition of impurities to the semiconductor material increases both the number of free electrons in the conduction band and the number of electrons in the valence band that can be elevated to the conduction band. Insulators are materials in which the forbidden gap is so large that practically no electrons can be given enough energy to cross the gap. Therefore, unless extremely large amounts of heat energy are available, these materials will not conduct electricity.

Figure 28 is an energy diagram of a reverse-biased Zener diode. The energy bands of the P and N materials are naturally at different levels, but reverse bias causes the valence band of the P material to overlap the energy level of the conduction band in the N material. Under this condition, the valence electrons of the P material can cross the extremely thin junction region at the overlap point without acquiring any additional energy. This action is called tunneling. When the breakdown point of the PN junction is reached, large numbers of minority carriers "tunnel" across the junction to form the current that occurs at breakdown. The tunneling phenomenon only takes place in heavily doped diodes such as Zener diodes.

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Figure 28. Energy diagram for Zener diode.

The second theory of reverse breakdown effect in diodes is known as AVALANCHE breakdown and occurs at reverse voltages beyond 5 volts. This type of breakdown diode has a depletion region that is deliberately made narrower than the depletion region in the normal PN-junction diode, but thicker than that in the Zener-effect diode. The thicker depletion region is achieved by decreasing the doping level from the level used in Zener-effect diodes. The breakdown is at a higher voltage because of the higher resistivity of the material. Controlling the doping level of the material during the manufacturing process can produce breakdown voltages ranging between about 2 and 200 volts.

The mechanism of avalanche breakdown is different from that of the Zener effect. In the depletion region of a PN junction, thermal energy is responsible for the formation of electron-hole pairs. The leakage current is caused by the movement of minority electrons, which is accelerated in the electric field across the barrier region. As the reverse voltage across the depletion region is increased, the reverse voltage eventually reaches a critical value. Once the critical or breakdown voltage has been reached, sufficient energy is gained by the thermally released minority electrons to enable the electrons to rupture covalent bonds as they collide with lattice atoms. The released electrons are also accelerated by the electric field, resulting in the release of further electrons, and so on, in a chain or avalanche effect. This process is illustrated in Figure 29.

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Figure 29. Avalanche multiplication.

For reverse voltage slightly higher than breakdown, the avalanche effect releases an almost unlimited number of carriers so that the diode essentially becomes a short circuit. The current flow in this region is limited only by an external series current-limiting resistor. Operating a diode in the breakdown region does not damage it, as long as the maximum power dissipation rating of the diode is not exceeded. Removing the reverse voltage permits all carriers to return to their normal energy values and velocities.

Some of the symbols used to represent Zener diodes are illustrated in Figure 30, Figure 31, Figure 32, Figure 33, and Figure 34. Note that the polarity markings indicate electron flow is with the arrow symbol instead of against it as in a normal PN-junction diode. This is because breakdown diodes are operated in the reverse-bias mode, which means the current flow is by minority current carriers.

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Figure 30. Schematic symbols for Zener diodes (A).
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Figure 31. Schematic symbols for Zener diodes (B).
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Figure 32. Schematic symbols for Zener diodes (C).
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Figure 33. Schematic symbols for Zener diodes (D).
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Figure 34. Schematic symbols for Zener diodes (E).

Zener diodes of various sorts are used for many purposes, but their most widespread use is as voltage regulators. Once the breakdown voltage of a Zener diode is reached, the voltage across the diode remains almost constant regardless of the supply voltage. Therefore they hold the voltage across the load at a constant level. This characteristic makes Zener diodes ideal voltage regulators, and they are found in almost all solid-state circuits in this capacity.


In a reverse biased PN-junction, which current carriers cause leakage current?


The action of a PN-junction during breakdown can be explained by what two theories?


Which breakdown theory explains the action that takes place in a heavily doped PN-junction with a reverse bias of less than 5 volts?


What is the doping level of an avalanche effect diode when compared to the doping level of a Zener-effect diode?


During avalanche effect breakdown, what limits current flow through the diode?


_ Why is electron flow with the arrow in the symbol of a Zener diode instead of against the arrow as it is in a normal diode?_

2.6. Light-Emitting Diodes

Diodes, like all semiconductor devices, are governed by the principles described in quantum physics. One of these principles is the emission of specific-frequency radiant energy whenever electrons fall from a higher energy level to a lower energy level. This is the same principle at work in a neon lamp, the characteristic pink-orange glow of ionized neon due to the specific energy transitions of its electrons in the midst of an electric current. The unique color of a neon lamp’s glow is due to the fact that its neon gas inside the tube, and not due to the particular amount of current through the tube or voltage between the two electrodes. Neon gas glows pinkish-orange over a wide range of ionizing voltages and currents. Each chemical element has its own "signature" emission of radiant energy when its electrons "jump" between different, quantized energy levels. Hydrogen gas, for example, glows red when ionized; mercury vapor glows blue. This is what makes spectrographic identification of elements possible.

Electrons flowing through a PN junction experience similar transitions in energy level, and emit radiant energy as they do so. The frequency of this radiant energy is determined by the crystal structure of the semiconductor material, and the elements comprising it. Some semiconductor junctions, composed of special chemical combinations, emit radiant energy within the spectrum of visible light as the electrons change energy levels. Simply put, these junctions glow when forward biased. A diode intentionally designed to glow like a lamp is called a light-emitting diode, or LED.

Forward biased silicon diodes give off heat as electron and holes from the N-type and P-type regions, respectively, recombine at the junction. In a forward biased LED, the recombination of electrons and holes in the active region in Figure below (c) yields photons. This process is known as electroluminescence. To give off photons, the potential barrier through which the electrons fall must be higher than for a silicon diode. The forward diode drop can range to a few volts for some color LEDs.

Diodes made from a combination of the elements gallium, arsenic, and phosphorus (called gallium-arsenide-phosphide) glow bright red, and are some of the most common LEDs manufactured. By altering the chemical constituency of the PN junction, different colors may be obtained. Early generations of LEDs were red, green, yellow, orange, and infra-red, later generations included blue and ultraviolet, with violet being the latest color added to the selection. Other colors may be obtained by combining two or more primary-color (red, green, and blue) LEDs together in the same package, sharing the same optical lens. This allowed for multicolor LEDs, such as tricolor LEDs (commercially available in the 1980’s) using red and green (which can create yellow) and later RGB LEDs (red, green, and blue), which cover the entire color spectrum.

The schematic symbol for an LED is a regular diode shape inside of a circle, with two small arrows pointing away (indicating emitted light), shown in Figure below.


LED, Light Emitting Diode: (a) schematic symbol. (b) Flat side and short lead of device correspond to cathode, as well as the internal arrangement of the cathode. (c) Cross section of Led die.

This notation of having two small arrows pointing away from the device is common to the schematic symbols of all light-emitting semiconductor devices. Conversely, if a device is light-activated (meaning that incoming light stimulates it), then the symbol will have two small arrows pointing toward it. LEDs can sense light. They generate a small voltage when exposed to light, much like a solar cell on a small scale. This property can be gainfully applied in a variety of light-sensing circuits.

Because LEDs are made of different chemical substances than silicon diodes, their forward voltage drops will be different. Typically, LEDs have much larger forward voltage drops than rectifying diodes, anywhere from about 1.6 volts to over 3 volts, depending on the color. Typical operating current for a standard-sized LED is around 20 mA. When operating an LED from a DC voltage source greater than the LED’s forward voltage, a series-connected "dropping" resistor must be included to prevent full source voltage from damaging the LED. Consider the example circuit in Figure below (a) using a 6 V source.


Setting LED current at 20 ma. (a) for a 6 V source, (b) for a 24 V source.

With the LED dropping 1.6 volts, there will be 4.4 volts dropped across the resistor. Sizing the resistor for an LED current of 20 mA is as simple as taking its voltage drop (4.4 volts) and dividing by circuit current (20 mA), in accordance with Ohm’s Law (R=E/I). This gives us a figure of 220 Ω. Calculating power dissipation for this resistor, we take its voltage drop and multiply by its current (P=IE), and end up with 88 mW, well within the rating of a 1/8 watt resistor. Higher battery voltages will require larger-value dropping resistors, and possibly higher-power rating resistors as well. Consider the example in Figure above (b) for a supply voltage of 24 volts:

Here, the dropping resistor must be increased to a size of 1.12 kΩ to drop 22.4 volts at 20 mA so that the LED still receives only 1.6 volts. This also makes for a higher resistor power dissipation: 448 mW, nearly one-half a watt of power! Obviously, a resistor rated for 1/8 watt power dissipation or even 1/4 watt dissipation will overheat if used here.

Dropping resistor values need not be precise for LED circuits. Suppose we were to use a 1 kΩ resistor instead of a 1.12 kΩ resistor in the circuit shown above. The result would be a slightly greater circuit current and LED voltage drop, resulting in a brighter light from the LED and slightly reduced service life. A dropping resistor with too much resistance (say, 1.5 kΩ instead of 1.12 kΩ) will result in less circuit current, less LED voltage, and a dimmer light. LEDs are quite tolerant of variation in applied power, so you need not strive for perfection in sizing the dropping resistor.

Multiple LEDs are sometimes required, say in lighting. If LEDs are operated in parallel, each must have its own current limiting resistor as in Figure below (a) to ensure currents dividing more equally. However, it is more efficient to operate LEDs in series (Figure below (b)) with a single dropping resistor. As the number of series LEDs increases the series resistor value must decrease to maintain current, to a point. The number of LEDs in series (Vf) cannot exceed the capability of the power supply. Multiple series strings may be employed as in Figure below (c).

In spite of equalizing the currents in multiple LEDs, the brightness of the devices may not match due to variations in the individual parts. Parts can be selected for brightness matching for critical applications.


Multiple LEDs: (a) In parallel, (b) in series, (c) series-parallel

Also because of their unique chemical makeup, LEDs have much, much lower peak-inverse voltage (PIV) ratings than ordinary rectifying diodes. A typical LED might only be rated at 5 volts in reverse-bias mode. Therefore, when using alternating current to power an LED, connect a protective rectifying diode anti-parallel with the LED to prevent reverse breakdown every other half-cycle as in Figure below (a).


Driving an LED with AC

The anti-parallel diode in Figure above can be replaced with an anti-parallel LED. The resulting pair of anti-parallel LED’s illuminate on alternating half-cycles of the AC sinewave. This configuration draws 20 ma, splitting it equally between the LED’s on alternating AC half cycles. Each LED only receives 10 mA due to this sharing. The same is true of the LED anti-parallel combination with a rectifier. The LED only receives 10 ma. If 20 mA was required for the LED(s), The resistor value could be halved.

The forward voltage drop of LED’s is inversely proportional to the wavelength (λ). As wavelength decreases going from infrared to visible colors to ultraviolet, Vf increases. While this trend is most obvious in the various devices from a single manufacturer, The voltage range for a particular color LED from various manufacturers varies. This range of voltages is shown in Table below.

Optical and electrical properties of LED’s

LED λ nm (= 10 -9m) Vf(from) Vf (to)













yellow, green




white, blue, violet








As lamps, LEDs are superior to incandescent bulbs in many ways. First and foremost is efficiency: LEDs output far more light power per watt of electrical input than an incandescent lamp. This is a significant advantage if the circuit in question is battery-powered, efficiency translating to longer battery life. Second is the fact that LEDs are far more reliable, having a much greater service life than incandescent lamps. This is because LEDs are "cold" devices: they operate at much cooler temperatures than an incandescent lamp with a white-hot metal filament, susceptible to breakage from mechanical and thermal shock. Third is the high speed at which LEDs may be turned on and off. This advantage is also due to the "cold" operation of LEDs: they don’t have to overcome thermal inertia in transitioning from off to on or vice versa. For this reason, LEDs are used to transmit digital (on/off) information as pulses of light, conducted in empty space or through fiber-optic cable, at very high rates of speed (millions of pulses per second).

LEDs excel in monochromatic lighting applications like traffic signals and automotive tail lights. Incandescents are abysmal in this application since they require filtering, decreasing efficiency. LEDs do not require filtering.

One major disadvantage of using LEDs as sources of illumination is their monochromatic (single-color) emission. No one wants to read a book under the light of a red, green, or blue LED. However, if used in combination, LED colors may be mixed for a more broad-spectrum glow. A new broad spectrum light source is the white LED. While small white panel indicators have been available for many years, illumination grade devices are still in development.

Efficiency of lighting

Lamp type Efficiency lumen/watt Life hrs notes

White LED




White LED, future



R&D target








high quality light

Compact fluorescent



cost effective

Sodium vapor, lp




Mercury vapor




A white LED is a blue LED exciting a phosphor which emits yellow light. The blue plus yellow approximates white light. The nature of the phosphor determines the characteristics of the light. A red phosphor may be added to improve the quality of the yellow plus blue mixture at the expense of efficiency. Table above compares white illumination LEDs to expected future devices and other conventional lamps. Efficiency is measured in lumens of light output per watt of input power. If the 50 lumens/watt device can be improved to 100 lumens/watt, white LEDs will be comparable to compact fluorescent lamps in efficiency.

LEDs in general have been a major subject of R&D since the 1960’s. Because of this it is impractical to cover all geometries, chemistries, and characteristics that have been created over the decades. The early devices were relatively dim and took moderate currents. The efficiencies have been improved in later generations to the point it is hazardous to look closely and directly into an illuminated LED. This can result in eye damage, and the LEDs only required a minor increase in dropping voltage (Vf) and current. Modern high intensity devices have reached 180 lumens using 0.7 Amps (82 lumens/watt, Luxeon Rebel series cool white), and even higher intensity models can use even higher currents with a corresponding increase in brightness. Other developments, such as quantum dots, are the subject of current research, so expect to see new things for these devices in the future

2.7. Electrostatic Discharge Sensitive (ESDS) Care

Devices that are sensitive to electrostatic discharge (ESD) require special handling. You can readily identify ESD-sensitive (ESDS) devices by the symbols shown in Figure 35. Static electricity is created whenever two substances (solid or fluid) are rubbed together or separated. The rubbing or separating of substances causes the transfer of electrons from one substance to the other; one substance then becomes positively charged, and the other becomes negatively charged. When either of these charged substances comes in contact with a grounded conductor, an electrical current flows until that substance is at the same electrical potential as ground.

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Figure 35. —Warning symbols for ESDS devices

You commonly experience static build-up during the winter months when you walk across a vinyl or carpeted floor. (Synthetics, especially plastics, are excellent generators of static electricity.) If you then touch a doorknob or any other conductor, an electrical arc to ground may result, and you may receive a slight shock. For you to experience such a shock, the electrostatic potential created must be 3,500 to 4,000 volts. Lesser voltages, although present and similarly discharged, normally are not apparent to your nervous system. Some typical measured static charges caused by various actions are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Typical Measured Static Charges (in volts)



LOW (10 - 20%)

HIGH (65 - 90%)

















18,000 V

1,500 V

Q-10. At approximately what minimum voltage potential should you be able to feel an electrostatic discharge?

Metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) devices are the most susceptible to damage from ESD. For example, an MOS field-effect transistor (MOSFET) can be damaged by a static voltage potential of as little as 35 volts. Commonly used discrete bipolar transistors and diodes (often used in ESD-protective circuits), although less susceptible to ESD, can be damaged by voltage potentials of less than 3,000 electrostatic volts. Damage does not always result in sudden device failure but sometimes results in device degradation and early failure. Table 1 clearly shows that electrostatic voltages well in excess of 3,000 volts can be easily generated, especially under low-humidity conditions. ESD damage of ESDS parts or circuit assemblies is possible whenever two or more pins of any of these devices are electrically exposed or have low impedance paths. Similarly, an ESDS device in a printed-circuit board or even in another pcb that is electrically connected in a series can be damaged if it provides a path to ground. ESD damage can occur during the manufacture of equipment or during the servicing of the equipment. Damage can occur anytime devices or assemblies are handled, replaced, tested, or inserted into a connector.

Q-11. A MOSFET can be damaged by an electrostatic discharge at approximately what minimum potential?

ESD-sensitive devices can be grouped by their sensitivity to ESD. Semiconductors fall within the following categories:

  • VERY SENSITIVE DEVICES. These include MOS and CMOS devices without input diode protection circuitry on all input circuits; dielectrically isolated semiconductors with internal capacitor contacts connected to external pins; and microcircuits using N + guard-ring construction (with metalization crossing over the guard ring).

  • SENSITIVE DEVICES. These include all low-power Schottky-barrier and Schottky-TTL devices; all ECL devices; high input-impedance linear microcircuits; all small-signal transistors that operate at 500 MHz or higher; all discrete semiconductors that use silicon dioxide to insulate metal paths over other active areas; MOS or CMOS devices with input diode protection on all input terminals; junction field-effect transistors; and precision resistive networks.

  • MODERATELY SENSITIVE DEVICES. These include all microcircuits and small-signal discrete semiconductors with less than 10 watts dissipation at 25º C, and thick-film resistors.

The following procedure is an example of some of the protective measures used to prevent ESD damage:

  1. Before servicing equipment, you should be grounded to discharge any static electricity from your body. This can be accomplished with the use of a test lead (a single-wire conductor with a series resistance of 1 megohm) equipped with alligator clips on each end. After the equipment has been completely de-energized, one clip end is connected to the grounded equipment frame; the other clip end is touched with your bare hand. Figure 36 shows a more refined ground strap, which frees both hands for work.
    NOTE: When wearing a wrist strap, you should never use ac-powered test equipment because of your increased chance of receiving an electrical shock.

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    Figure 36. —ESD wrist strap
  2. Equipment technical manuals and packaging material should be checked for ESD warnings and instructions.

  3. Prior to opening an electrostatic unit package of an ESDS device or assembly, clip the free end of the grounded test lead to the package. This will cause any static electricity that may have built up on the package to discharge. The other end remains connected to the equipment frame or other ESD ground. Keep the unit package grounded until the replacement device or assembly is placed in the unit package.

  4. Minimize handling of ESDS devices and assemblies. Keep replacement devices or assemblies, with their connector-shorting bars, clips, and so forth, intact in their electrostatic-free packages until needed. Place removed repairable ESDS devices or assemblies, with their connector shorting bars or clips installed, in electrostatic-free packages as soon as they are removed from the equipment. ESDS devices or assemblies should be transported and stored only in protective packaging.

  5. Always avoid unnecessary physical movement, such as scuffing the feet, when handling ESDS devices or assemblies. Such movement will generate additional charges of static electricity.

  6. When removing or replacing an ESDS device or assembly in the equipment, hold the device or assembly through the electrostatic-free wrap if possible. Otherwise, pick up the device or assembly by its body only. DO NOT TOUCH component leads, connector pins, or any other electrical connections or paths on boards, even though they are covered by conformal coating.

  7. Do not permit ESDS devices or assemblies to come in contact with clothing or other ungrounded materials that could have an electrostatic charge. The charges on a nonconducting material are not equal. A plastic storage bag may have a −10,000 volt potential one-half inch from a +15,000 volt potential, with many other such charges all over the bag. Placing a circuit card inside the bag allows the charges to equalize through the pcb conductive paths and components, thereby causing failures. Do not hand an ESDS device or assembly to another person until the device or assembly is protectively packaged.

  8. When moving an ESDS device or assembly, always touch (with your bare skin) the surface on which it rests for at least 1 second before picking it up. Before placing it on any surface, touch the surface with your free hand for at least 1 second. The bare skin contact provides a safe discharge path for electrostatic charges accumulated while you are moving around.

  9. While servicing equipment containing ESDS devices, do not handle or touch materials such as plastic, vinyl, synthetic textiles, polished wood, fiber glass, or similar items that could create static charges; or, be sure to repeat the grounding action with the bare hands after contacting these materials. These materials are prime electrostatic generators.

  10. If possible, avoid repairs that require soldering at the equipment level. Soldering irons must have heater and tip assemblies grounded to ac electrical ground. Do not use ordinary plastic solder suckers (special antistatic solder suckers are commercially available).

  11. Ground the leads of test equipment momentarily before you energize the test equipment and before you probe ESDS items.

Q-12. Why should you avoid using ac-powered test equipment when wearing a wrist strap?

2.8. Semiconductor Substitution Testing Method

Substitution of a semiconductor diode or transistor known to be in good condition is one method of determining the quality of a questionable semiconductor device. This method should be used only after you have made voltage and resistance measurements. This ensures the circuit has no defect that might damage the substitute semiconductor device. If more than one defective semiconductor is present in the equipment section where trouble has been localized, the semiconductor replacement method becomes cumbersome. Several semiconductors may have to be replaced before the trouble is corrected. To determine which stage(s) failed and which semiconductors are not defective, you must test all the removed semiconductors. You can do this by observing whether the equipment operates correctly as you reinsert each of the removed semiconductor devices into the equipment.

2.9. Diode Maintenance

Diodes are rugged and efficient. They are also expected to be relatively trouble free. Protective encapsulation processes and special coating techniques have even further increased their life expectancies. In theory, a diode should last indefinitely. However, if diodes are subjected to current overloads, their junctions will be damaged or destroyed. In addition, the application of excessively high operating voltages can damage or destroy junctions through arc-over, or excessive reverse currents. One of the greatest dangers to the diode is heat. Heat causes more electron-hole pairs to be generated, which in turn increases current flow. This increase in current generates more heat and the cycle repeats itself until the diode draws excessive current. This action is referred to as THERMAL RUNAWAY and eventually causes diode destruction. Extreme caution should be used when working with equipment containing diodes to ensure that these problems do not occur and cause irreparable diode damage.

The following is a list of some of the special safety precautions that should be observed when working with diodes:

  • Never remove or insert a diode into a circuit with voltage applied.

  • Never pry diodes to loosen them from their circuits.

  • Always be careful when soldering to ensure that excessive heat is not applied to the diode.

  • When testing a diode, ensure that the test voltage does not exceed the diode’s maximum allowable voltage.

  • Never put your fingers across a signal diode because the static charge from your body could short it out.

  • Always replace a diode with a direct replacement, or with one of the same type.

  • Ensure a replacement diode is put into a circuit in the correct direction.

If a diode has been subjected to excessive voltage or temperature and is suspected of being defective, it can be checked in various ways. The most convenient and quickest way of testing a diode is with an ohmmeter (Figure 23). To make the check, simply disconnect one of the diode leads from the circuit wiring, and make resistance measurements across the leads of the diode. The resistance measurements obtained depend upon the test-lead polarity of the ohmmeter; therefore, two measurements must be taken. The first measurement is taken with the test leads connected to either end of the diode and the second measurement is taken with the test leads reversed on the diode. The larger resistance value is assumed to be the reverse (back) resistance of the diode, and the smaller resistance (front) value is assumed to be the forward resistance. Measurement can be made for comparison purposes using another identical-type diode (known to be good) as a standard. Two high-value resistance measurements indicate that the diode is open or has a high forward resistance. Two low-value resistance measurements indicate that the diode is shorted or has a low reverse resistance. A normal set of measurements will show a high resistance in the reverse direction and a low resistance in the forward direction. The diode’s efficiency is determined by how low the forward resistance is compared with the reverse resistance. That is, it is desirable to have as great a ratio (often known as the front-to-back ratio or the back-to-front ratio) as possible between the reverse and forward resistance measurements. However, as a rule of thumb, a small signal diode will have a ratio of several hundred to one, while a power rectifier can operate satisfactorily with a ratio of 10 to 1.

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Figure 37. Checking a diode with an ohmmeter.

One thing you should keep in mind about the ohmmeter check-it is not conclusive. It is still possible for a diode to check good under this test, but break down when placed back in the circuit. The problem is that the meter used to check the diode uses a lower voltage than the diode usually operates at in the circuit.

Another important point to remember is that a diode should not be condemned because two ohmmeters give different readings on the diode. This occurs because of the different internal resistances of the ohmmeters and the different states of charge on the ohmmeter batteries. Because each ohmmeter sends a different current through the diode, the two resistance values read on the meters will not be the same.

Another way of checking a diode is with the substitution method. In this method, a good diode is substituted for a questionable diode. This technique should be used only after you have made voltage and resistance measurements to make certain that there is no circuit defect that might damage the substitution diode. If more than one defective diode is present in the equipment section where trouble has been localized, this method becomes cumbersome, since several diodes may have to be replaced before the trouble is corrected. To determine which stages failed and which diodes are not defective, all of the removed diodes must be tested. This can be accomplished by observing whether the equipment operates correctly as each of the removed diodes is reinserted into the equipment.

In conclusion, the only valid check of a diode is a dynamic electrical test that determines the diode’s forward current (resistance) and reverse current (resistance) parameters. This test can be accomplished using various crystal diode test sets that are readily available from many manufacturers.


What is the greatest threat to a diode?


When checking a diode with an ohmmeter, what is indicated by two high resistance measurements?

2.10. Testing Diodes

Semiconductor diodes, such as general-purpose germanium and silicon diodes, power silicon diodes, and microwave silicon diodes, can be tested effectively under actual operating conditions. However, crystal-rectifier testers are available to determine dc characteristics that provide an indication of crystal- diode quality.

A common type of crystal-diode test set is a combination ohmmeter-ammeter. Measurements of forward resistance, back resistance, and reverse current can be made with this equipment. Using the results of these measurements, you can determine the relative condition of these components by comparing their measured values with typical values obtained from test information furnished with the test set or from the manufacturer’s data sheets. A check that provides a rough indication of the rectifying property of a diode is the comparison of the back-and-forward resistance of the diode at a specified voltage. A typical back-to-forward-resistance ratio is on the order of 10 to 1, and a forward-resistance value of 50 to 80 ohms is common.

Q-11. What is the typical back-to-forward resistance ratio of a good-quality diode?

2.10.1. Testing Diodes with an Ohmmeter

A convenient test for a semiconductor diode requires only an ohmmeter. The back-and-forward resistance can be measured at a voltage determined by the battery potential of the ohmmeter and the resistance range at which the meter is set. When the test leads of the ohmmeter are connected to the diode, a resistance will be measured that is different from the resistance indicated if the leads are reversed. The smaller value is called the FORWARD RESISTANCE, and the larger value is called the BACK RESISTANCE. If the ratio of back-to-forward resistance is greater than 10 to 1, the diode should be capable of functioning as a rectifier. However, keep in mind that this is a very limited test that does not take into account the action of the diode at voltages of different magnitudes and frequencies. (NOTE: This test should never be used to test crystal mixer diodes in radars. It will destroy their sensitivity.)

2.10.2. Testing Diodes with Oscilloscopes

An oscilloscope can be used to graphically display the back-and-forward resistance characteristics of a crystal diode. A circuit used in conjunction with an oscilloscope to make this test is shown in Figure 38. This circuit uses the oscilloscope line-test voltage as the test signal. A series circuit (composed of resistor R1 and the internal resistance in the line-test circuit) decreases a 3-volt, open-circuit test voltage to a value of approximately 2 volts peak to peak.

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Figure 38. Testing semiconductor diodes with an oscilloscope.

The test signal applied to the crystal diode is also connected to the horizontal input of the oscilloscope. The horizontal sweep represents the voltage applied to the diode under test. The voltage developed across current-measuring resistor R2 is applied to the vertical input of the oscilloscope. Because this voltage is proportional to the current through the diode being tested, the vertical deflection will indicate crystal current. The resulting oscilloscope trace for a normal diode is similar to the curve shown in Figure 39.

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Figure 39. Characteristic curve of a semiconductor diode.

To test Zener diodes, you must use a higher voltage than the oscilloscope line-test signal. This test can be made with a diode test set or with the circuit shown in Figure 40. In this circuit, rheostat R1 is used to adjust the input voltage to a suitable value for the Zener diode being tested. Resistor R2 limits the current through the diode. The signal voltage applied to the diode is also connected to the horizontal input of the oscilloscope. The voltage developed across current-measuring resistor R3 is applied to the vertical input of the oscilloscope. The horizontal sweep represents the applied voltage, and the vertical deflection indicates the current through the diode being tested. Figure 41 shows the characteristic pattern of a Zener diode. Note the sharp increase in current at the Zener voltage (avalanche) point. For the Zener diode to be usable, this voltage must be within limits specified by the manufacturer.

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Figure 40. Testing a Zener diode.
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Figure 41. Zener diode characteristic curve.

2.11. Diode Testing

Because of the reliability of semiconductor devices, servicing techniques developed for transistorized equipment differ from those used for electron-tube circuits. Electron tubes are usually considered to be the circuit component most susceptible to failure and are normally the first to be tested. Transistors, however, are capable of operating in excess of 30,000 hours at maximum ratings without appreciable degradation. They are often soldered into equipment in the same manner as resistors and capacitors. Substitution of a diode or transistor known to be in good condition is a simple method of determining the quality of a questionable semiconductor device. You should use this technique only after voltage and resistance measurements indicate that no circuit defect exists that might damage the substituted semiconductor device. If more than one defective semiconductor is present in the equipment section where trouble has been localized, substitution becomes cumbersome since several semiconductors may have to be replaced before the trouble is corrected. To determine which stages failed and which semiconductors are not defective, you must test all of the removed semiconductors. This can be accomplished by observing whether the equipment operates correctly as each of the removed semiconductor devices is reinserted into the equipment.

Q-13. Prior to substituting a diode, what measurements should you take to determine its condition?

2.12. Diode Testers

Diodes, such as general-purpose germanium and silicon diodes, power silicon diodes, and microwave silicon diodes, are most effectively tested under actual operating conditions. However, rectifier testers are available for you to determine direct-current characteristics that provide an indication of diode quality.

2.12.1. Rf Diode Test

A common type of diode test set is a combination ohmmeter-ammeter. You can make measurements of forward resistance, back resistance, and reverse current with this equipment. You can determine the condition of the rectifier under test by comparing its actual values with typical values obtained from test information furnished with the test set or from the manufacturer’s data sheets. Comparing the diode’s back and forward resistance at a specified voltage provides you with a rough indication of the rectifying property of a diode. A typical back-to-forward resistance ratio is on the order of 10 to 1, and a forward- resistance value of 50 to 80 ohms is common.

2.12.2. Switching Diode Test

To effectively test diodes used for computer applications, you must obtain back-resistance measurements at a large number of different voltage levels. This can be done efficiently by using a dynamic diode tester in conjunction with an oscilloscope, which is used to display the diode’s back- current-versus-voltage curve. You can easily interpret diode characteristics, such as flutter, hysteresis, and negative resistance, through use of the dynamic current and voltage display.

2.13. Diode Characteristic Graphical Display

You can use an oscilloscope to graphically display the forward- and back-resistance characteristics of a diode. A test circuit used in conjunction with an oscilloscope is shown in Figure 42. This circuit uses an audio-signal generator as the test signal. It should be adjusted for an approximate 2-volt, 60-hertz signal, as measured across R1.

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Figure 42. —Display circuit used with an oscilloscope

The test signal you apply to the diode is also connected to the horizontal input of the oscilloscope. The horizontal sweep will then display the voltage applied to the diode under test. The voltage developed across current-measuring resistor R2 is applied to the vertical input of the oscilloscope. Since this voltage is proportional to the current through the diode under test, the vertical deflection will indicate diode current. The resulting oscilloscope trace will be similar to the curve shown in Figure 43.

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Figure 43. —Typical characteristic curve of a silicone diode

2.13.1. Reverse Voltage-Current Analysis

You can make an analysis of the reverse voltage-current portion of the characteristic curve for a diode with the method described above or with a diode test set. This test is very important for diodes used in computer applications, where stability of operation is essential. Various diode conditions that may be detected by this test are shown in Figure 44, Figure 45, Figure 46, and Figure 47.

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Figure 44. —Diode reverse current-voltage characteristics
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Figure 45. —Diode reverse current-voltage characteristics
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Figure 46. —Diode reverse current-voltage characteristics
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Figure 47. —Diode reverse current-voltage characteristics

2.13.2. Zener Diode Test

An audio signal generator may not be able to produce a high enough voltage for you to test Zener diodes. You can, however, make this test with a diode test set or with the circuit shown in Figure 48. In this circuit, R1 is used to adjust the input voltage to a suitable value for the Zener diode being tested. Resistor R2 limits the current through the diode. The signal voltage applied to the diode is also connected to the horizontal input of the oscilloscope. The voltage developed across current-measuring resistor R3 is applied to the vertical input of the oscilloscope. The horizontal sweep will therefore represent the applied voltage, and the vertical deflection will indicate the current through the diode under test. Figure 49 shows the characteristic pattern of a Zener diode (note the sharp increase in current at the avalanche breakdown point). For the Zener diode to be acceptable, this voltage must be within the limits specified by the manufacturer.

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Figure 48. —Zener diode test circuit
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Figure 49. —Zener diode characteristic pattern

2.14. Static Resistance Measurements

One convenient method of testing a diode requires only your ohmmeter. The forward and back resistances can be measured at a voltage determined by the battery potential of the ohmmeter and the resistance range at which the meter is set. When the test leads of the ohmmeter are connected to the diode, a resistance will be measured that is different from the resistance indicated if the leads are reversed. The smaller value is called the forward resistance, and the larger value is called the back resistance. If the ratio of back-to-forward resistance is greater than 10 to 1, the diode should be capable of functioning as a rectifier. This is a very limited test, which does not take into account the action of the diode at voltages of different magnitudes and frequencies. Some diodes may be damaged by the excessive current produced by some range settings of a standard multimeter. Therefore, you should use a digital multimeter when performing this measurement.

Q-14. As a rule of thumb, what is an acceptable ratio of back-to-forward resistance for a diode?