How Photodiodes Work and Their Applications

A photodiode is a type of semiconductor device that converts light into electric current. It is also known as a photodetector, a light detector, or a photo sensor. Photodiodes are designed to operate in reverse bias conditions, meaning that the voltage applied across them is opposite to the direction of the current flow. Photodiodes are widely used in scientific and industrial instruments to measure light intensity, detect optical signals, and generate electric power from solar energy.

What is a Photodiode?

A photodiode is defined as a PN junction diode that generates current when exposed to light. A PN junction is formed by joining two types of semiconductor materials, P-type and N-type, which have different electrical properties. The P-type material has an excess of positive charge carriers (holes), while the N-type material has an excess of negative charge carriers (electrons). When the two materials are joined, some electrons from the N-type region diffuse into the P-type region and recombine with holes, creating a depletion region near the junction that has no free charge carriers. This region acts as a barrier that prevents further diffusion of charge carriers.

A photodiode has two terminals, an anode and a cathode, which are connected to the P-type and N-type regions, respectively. The anode is usually marked with a tab or a dot on the device package. The symbol of a photodiode is shown below, with two arrows pointing toward the junction to indicate that it is sensitive to light.

Photodiode

How Does a Photodiode Work?

When a photodiode is connected to an external circuit in reverse bias condition, a small reverse current flows through it from the anode to the cathode. This current is called the dark current, and it is caused by the thermal generation of minority charge carriers in the semiconductor material. The dark current is independent of the applied reverse voltage, but it depends on the temperature and the doping level of the material.

symbol of photodiode

When the light of sufficient energy strikes the photodiode, it creates electron-hole pairs in the semiconductor material. This process is also known as the inner photoelectric effect. If the absorption of light occurs in or near the depletion region, these charge carriers are swept by the electric field across the junction, creating a photocurrent that adds to the dark current. Thus, holes move toward the anode, and electrons move toward the cathode, and the reverse current increases with increasing light intensity.

The photocurrent is proportional to the incident light intensity for a given wavelength and temperature. However, if the light intensity is too high, the photocurrent reaches a maximum value called the saturation current, beyond which it does not increase further. The saturation current depends on the device geometry and material properties.

The photodiode can operate in two modes: photovoltaic mode and photoconductive mode.

Photovoltaic Mode

In photovoltaic mode, no external reverse voltage is applied to the photodiode, and it acts like a solar cell that generates electric power from light. The photocurrent flows through a short circuit or a load impedance connected to the device terminals. If the circuit is open or has a high impedance, a voltage builds up across the device that forwards biases it. This voltage is called the open-circuit voltage, and it depends on the light intensity and wavelength.

The photovoltaic mode exploits the photovoltaic effect, which is used to produce solar energy from sunlight. However, this mode has some disadvantages, such as low response speed, high series resistance, and low sensitivity.

Photoconductive Mode

In photoconductive mode, an external reverse voltage is applied to the photodiode, and it acts like a variable resistor that changes its resistance with light intensity. The photocurrent flows through an external circuit that provides a bias voltage and measures the output current or voltage.

The photoconductive mode has some advantages over the photovoltaic mode, such as high response speed, low series resistance, high sensitivity, and wide dynamic range. However, this mode also has some drawbacks, such as higher noise levels, higher power consumption, and lower linearity.

Characteristics of Photodiode

The characteristics of a photodiode describe its performance under different conditions of light intensity, wavelength, temperature, bias voltage, etc. Some of these characteristics are:

characteristics of photodiode
  • Responsivity: It is defined as the ratio of output photocurrent to input light power at a given wavelength. It is usually expressed in amperes per watt (A/W) or milliamperes per milliwatt (mA/mW). The responsivity depends on factors such as device material, geometry, doping level, junction depth, etc.
  • Quantum efficiency: It is defined as the ratio of a number of electron-hole pairs generated by light to a number of photons incident on the device at a given wavelength. It is usually expressed as a percentage (%). The quantum efficiency depends on factors such as absorption coefficient, reflection losses, recombination losses, etc.
  • Spectral response: It is defined as the variation of responsivity or quantum efficiency with a wavelength of light. It shows the range of wavelengths that can be detected by the device. The spectral response depends on factors such as band gap energy, absorption coefficient, reflection losses, etc.
  • Dark current: It is defined as the reverse current that flows through the device in the absence of light. It is usually expressed in nano amperes (nA) or microamperes (µA). The dark current depends on factors such as temperature, doping level, leakage currents, etc.
  • Dark resistance: It is defined as the ratio of maximum reverse voltage to the dark current of the device. It is usually expressed in ohms (Ω) or megaohms (MΩ). The dark resistance depends on factors such as temperature, doping level, leakage currents, etc.
  • Noise: It is defined as the unwanted fluctuations in the output signal of the device due to various sources such as thermal noise, shot noise, flicker noise, etc. It affects the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and resolution of the device.
  • Linearity: It is defined as the degree of proportionality between the output signal and the input signal of the device over a wide range of input signal values. It affects the accuracy and precision of the device.
  • Response time: It is defined as the time required for the output signal to reach a certain percentage (usually 90%) of its final value after a step change in the input signal. It affects the speed and bandwidth of the device.

Applications of Photodiode

Photodiodes have many applications in various fields, such as:

  • Optical communication: Photodiodes are used to receive optical signals transmitted through fiber optic cables or free space. They convert optical signals into electrical signals that can be processed by electronic circuits.
  • Optical measurement: Photodiodes are used to measure light intensity, wavelength, color, spectra, etc., for various purposes such as scientific research, quality control, environmental monitoring, etc.
  • Optical imaging: Photodiodes are used to form images by detecting light reflected or emitted from objects or scenes. They are used in devices such as cameras, scanners, night vision devices, medical imaging devices, etc.
  • Optical switching: Photodiodes are used to control optical switches that can turn on or off optical signals or change their direction or wavelength. They are used in devices such as optical modulators, optical multiplexers/demultiplexers, optical routers, optical logic gates, etc.
  • Solar power generation: Photodiodes are used to convert solar energy into electrical energy by absorbing photons from sunlight. They are used in devices such as solar cells, solar panels, solar chargers, solar lamps, etc.

Some examples of specific applications of photodiodes are:

  • Alarm circuit using photodiode: A photodiode can be used to detect an intrusion by breaking a beam of light that falls on it from a light source. When there is no obstruction in front of the photodiode, a reverse current flow through it due to the incident light. When an obstruction occurs, the reverse current drops to the dark current level. The circuit is designed to trigger an alarm when the reverse current falls below a certain threshold. This arrangement can be used to secure doorways, windows, or other entry points.
  • Counter circuit using photodiode: A photodiode can be used to count objects that pass through a conveyor belt by breaking a beam of light that falls on it from a light source. When there is no object in front of the photodiode, a reverse current flows through it due to the incident light. When an object passes through the light beam, it blocks the light from reaching the photodiode. The circuit is designed to increment a counter when the reverse current falls below a certain threshold. This arrangement can be used to count items such as bottles, coins, cards, etc.

Conclusion

A photodiode is a semiconductor device that converts light into electric current. It works on the principle of the inner photoelectric effect that creates electron-hole pairs when photons strike the PN junction diode. A photodiode operates in reverse bias conditions and has two modes: photovoltaic mode and photoconductive mode. A photodiode has various characteristics, such as responsivity, quantum efficiency, spectral response, dark current, dark resistance, noise, linearity, and response time.

A photodiode has many applications in optical communication, optical measurement, optical imaging, optical switching, and solar power generation. A photodiode can be used to make alarm circuits and counter circuits by detecting the interruption of light beams. A photodiode is a versatile and useful device that can sense and convert light into electricity.

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