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How do Diodes Work?

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A diode allows current to flow in only ONE direction.

If the cathode end (marked with a stripe) is connected so it is more negative than the anode end, current will flow.



The picture shows three types of diode:

Small signal diode

Rectifier diode

Soft fast recovery diode

A diode has a forward voltage drop. That is to say, when current is flowing, the voltage at the anode is always higher than the voltage at the cathode. The actual Forward Voltage Drop varies according to the type of diode. For example:


diode voltage drop

Silicon diode = 0.7v
Schottky diode = 0.3v
Germanium diode = 0.2v

In addition, the voltage drop increases slightly as the current increases so, for example, a silicon rectifier diode might have a forward voltage drop of 1 volt when 1 Amp of current is flowing through it. 

zener diode voltage drop

A ZENER diode allows current to flow in both directions. In the "forward" direction, no current will flow until the voltage across the diode is about 0.7 volts (as with a normal diode). In the reverse direction (cathode more positive than the anode) no current will flow until the voltage approaches the "zener" voltage, after which a LOT of current can flow and must be restricted by connecting a resistor in series with the zener diode so that the diode does not melt!

Within a certain supply voltage range, the voltage across the zener diode will remain constant. Values of 2.4 volts to 30 volts are common. Zener diodes are not available in values above around 33 volts but a different type of diode called an AVALANCHE diode works in a similar way for voltages between 100v and 300v. (These diodes are often called "zener" diodes since their performance is so similar.)

Zener diodes are used to "clamp" a voltage in order to prevent it rising higher than a certain value. This might be to protect a circuit from damage or it might be to "chop off" part of an alternating waveform for various reasons. Zener diodes are also used to provide a fixed "reference voltage" from a supply voltage that varies. They are widely used in regulated power supply circuits.

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