Diode: Definition, Symbol, and Types

What is a Diode?

A diode is defined as a semiconductor device with two terminals that conducts current in one direction only (if operated within a specified voltage level)

A diode only blocks current in the reverse direction while the reverse voltage is within a limited range otherwise reverse barrier breaks and the voltage at which this breakdown occurs is called reverse breakdown voltage. The diode acts as a valve in the electronic and electrical circuits.

A PN junction is the simplest form of the semiconductor diode which in ideal conditions behaves as a short circuit when it is forward biased and in open circuit when it is in the reverse biased. The name diode is derived from “di–ode” which means a device that has two electrodes.

Diode Symbol

The symbol of a diode is shown below. The arrowhead points in the direction of conventional current flow in the forward biased condition. That means the anode is connected to the p side and cathode is connected to the n side.

We can create a simple PN junction diode by doping pentavalent or donor impurity in one portion and trivalent or acceptor impurity in other portion of silicon or germanium crystal block. These dopings make a PN junction at the middle part of the block. We can also form a PN junction by joining a p-type and n-type semiconductor together with a special fabrication technique. The terminal connected to the p-type is the anode. The terminal connected to the n-type side is the cathode.

Working Principle of Diode

A diode’s working principle depends on the interaction of n-type and p-type semiconductors. An n-type semiconductor has plenty of free electrons and a very few numbers of holes. In other words, we can say that the concentration of free electrons is high and that of holes is very low in an n-type semiconductor. Free electrons in the n-type semiconductor are referred as majority charge carriers, and holes in the n-type semiconductor are referred to as minority charge carriers.

A p-type semiconductor has a high concentration of holes and low concentration of free electrons. Holes in the p-type semiconductor are majority charge carriers, and free electrons in the p-type semiconductor are minority charge carriers.

If you’d prefer a video explanation of what a diode is, check out the video below:

Unbiased Diode

Now let us see what happens when one n-type region and one p-type region come in contact. Here due to concentration difference, majority carriers diffuse from one side to another. As the concentration of holes is high in the p-type region and it is low in the n-type region, the holes start diffusing from the p-type region to n-type region. Again the concentration of free electrons is high in the n-type region and it is low in the p-type region and due to this reason, free electrons start diffusing from the n-type region to the p-type region.

The free electrons diffusing into the p-type region from the n-type region would recombine with holes available there and create uncovered negative ions in the p-type region. In the same way, the holes diffusing into the n-type region from the p-type region would recombine with free electrons available there and create uncovered positive ions in the n-type region.

In this way, there would a layer of negative ions in the p-type side and a layer of positive ions in the n-type region appear along the junction line of these two types of semiconductor. The layers of uncovered positive ions and uncovered negative ions form a region at the middle of the diode where no charge carrier exists since all the charge carriers get recombined here in this region. Due to lack of charge carriers, this region is called depletion region.

After the formation of the depletion region, there is no more diffusion of charge carriers from one side to another in the diode. This is because due to the electric field appeared across the depletion region will prevent further migration of charge carriers from one side to another. The potential of the layer of uncovered positive ions in the n-type side would repeal the holes in the p-type side and the potential of the layer of uncovered negative ions in the p-type side would repeal the free electrons in the n-type side. That means a potential barrier is created across the junction to prevent further diffusion of charge carriers.

Forward Biased Diode

Now let us see what happens if positive terminal of a source is connected to the p-type side and the negative terminal of the source is connected to the n-type side of the diode and if we increase the voltage of this source slowly from zero.

In the beginning, there is no current flowing through the diode. This is because although there is an external electrical field applied across the diode but still the majority charge carriers do not get sufficient influence of the external field to cross the depletion region. As we told that the depletion region acts as a potential barrier against the majority charge carriers. This potential barrier is called forward potential barrier. The majority charge carriers start crossing the forward potential barrier only when the value of externally applied voltage across the junction is more than the potential of the forward barrier. For silicon diodes, the forward barrier potential is 0.7 volt and for germanium diodes, it is 0.3 volt. When the externally applied forward voltage across the diode becomes more than the forward barrier potential, the free majority charge carriers start crossing the barrier and contribute the forward diode current. In that situation, the diode would behave as a short-circuited path and the forward current gets limited by only externally connected resistors to the diode.

Reverse Biased Diode

Now let us see what happens if we connect negative terminal of the voltage source to the p-type side and positive terminal of the voltage source to the n-type side of the diode. At that condition, due to electrostatic attraction of negative potential of the source, the holes in the p-type region would be shifted more away from the junction leaving more uncovered negative ions at the junction. In the same way, the free electrons in the n-type region would be shifted more away from the junction towards the positive terminal of the voltage source leaving more uncovered positive ions in the junction. As a result of this phenomenon, the depletion region becomes wider. This condition of a diode is called the reverse biased condition. At that condition, no majority carriers cross the junction as they go away from the junction. In this way, a diode blocks the flow of current when it is reverse biased.

As we already told at the beginning of this article that there are always some free electrons in the p-type semiconductor and some holes in the n-type semiconductor. These opposite charge carriers in a semiconductor are called minority charge carriers. In the reverse biased condition, the holes find themselves in the n-type side would easily cross the reverse biased depletion region as the field across the depletion region does not present rather it helps minority charge carriers to cross the depletion region. As a result, there is a tiny current flowing through the diode from positive to the negative side. The amplitude of this current is very small as the number of minority charge carriers in the diode is very small. This current is called reverse saturation current.

If the reverse voltage across a diode gets increased beyond a safe value, due to higher electrostatic force and due to a higher kinetic energy of minority charge carriers colliding with atoms, a number of covalent bonds get broken to contribute a huge number of free electron-hole pairs in the diode and the process is cumulative. The huge number of such generated charge carriers would contribute a huge reverse current in the diode. If this current is not limited by an external resistance connected to the diode circuit, the diode may permanently be destroyed.

Types of Diode

The types of diode include:

  1. Zener diode
  2. P-N junction diode
  3. Tunnel diode
  4. Varactor diode
  5. Schottky diode
  6. Photodiode
  7. PIN diode
  8. Laser diode
  9. Avalanche diode
  10. Light emitting diode

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