Last modified on 17 November 2009, at 16:29

Semiconductors/Zener Diode

A Zener diode is a type of diode that permits current to flow in the forward direction like a normal diode, but also in the reverse direction if the voltage is larger than the rated breakdown voltage or "Zener voltage". The device was named for Clarence Zener, who discovered this electrical property.

A conventional solid-state diode will not let significant current flow if reverse-biased below its reverse breakdown voltage. By exceeding the reverse bias breakdown voltage, a conventional diode is subject to high current flow due to avalanche breakdown. Unless this current is limited by external circuitry, the diode will be permanently damaged. In case of large forward bias (current flow in the direction of the arrow), the diode exhibits a voltage drop due to internal resistance. The amount of the voltage drop depends on the design of the diode.

A Zener diode exhibits almost the same properties, except the device is especially designed so as to have a greatly reduced breakdown voltage, the so-called Zener voltage. A Zener diode contains a heavily doped p-n junction allowing electrons to tunnel from the valence band of the p-type material to the conduction band of the n-type material. A reverse-biased Zener diode will exhibit a controlled breakdown and let the current flow to keep the voltage across the Zener diode at the Zener voltage. For example, a diode with a Zener breakdown voltage of 3.2 V will exhibit a voltage drop of 3.2 V if reverse biased. However, the current is not unlimited, so the Zener diode is typically used to generate a reference voltage for an amplifier stage, or as a voltage stabilizer for low-current applications.

The breakdown voltage can be controlled quite accurately in the doping process. Tolerances to within 0.05% are available though the most widely used tolerances are 5% and 10%.

Another mechanism that produces a similar effect is the avalanche effect as in the avalanche diode. The two types of diode are in fact constructed the same way and both effects are present in diodes of this type. In silicon diodes up to about 5.6 volts, the zener effect is the predominant effect and shows a marked negative temperature coefficient. Above 5.6 volts, the avalanche effect becomes predominant and exhibits a positive temperature coefficient.

In a 5.6 V diode, the two effects occur together and their temperature coefficients neatly cancel each other out, thus the 5.6 V diode is the part of choice in temperature critical applications.

Modern manufacturing techniques have produced devices with voltages lower than 5.6 V with negligible temperature coefficients, but as higher voltage devices are encountered, the temperature coefficient rises dramatically. A 75 V diode has 10 times the coefficient of a 12 V diode.

All such diodes, regardless of breakdown voltage, are usually marketed under the umbrella term of 'zener diode'.

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