Figure 1: Closeup of a diode, showing the square shaped semiconductor crystal (black object on left).
Figure 2: Various semiconductor diodes. Bottom: A bridge rectifier. In most diodes, a white or black painted band identifies the cathode terminal, that is, the terminal that positive charge (conventional current) will flow out of when the diode is conducting.[1][2][3][4]
Figure 3: Structure of a vacuum tube diode. The filament may be bare, or more commonly (as shown here), embedded within and insulated from an enclosing cathode

In electronics, a diode is a two-terminal electronic component with asymmetric conductance, it has low (ideally zero) resistance to current flow in one direction, and high (ideally infinite) resistance in the other. Diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of crystals' rectifying abilities was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. The first semiconductor diodes, called cat's whisker diodes, developed around 1906, were made of mineral crystals such as galena. Today most diodes are made of silicon, but other semiconductors such as selenium or germanium are sometimes used.[5] A semiconductor diode, the most common type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals.[6] A vacuum tube diode has two electrodes, a plate (anode) and a heated cathode.

Main functions

The most common function of a diode is to allow an electric current to pass in one direction (called the diode's forward direction), while blocking current in the opposite direction (the reverse direction). Thus, the diode can be viewed as an electronic version of a check valve. This unidirectional behavior is called rectification, and is used to convert alternating current to direct current, including extraction of modulation from radio signals in radio receivers—these diodes are forms of rectifiers.

However, diodes can have more complicated behavior than this simple on–off action. Semiconductor diodes begin conducting electricity only if a certain threshold voltage or cut-in voltage is present in the forward direction (a state in which the diode is said to be forward-biased). The voltage drop across a forward-biased diode varies only a little with the current, and is a function of temperature; this effect can be used as a temperature sensor or voltage reference.

Semiconductor diodes' nonlinear current–voltage characteristic can be tailored by varying the semiconductor materials and doping, introducing impurities into the materials. These are exploited in special-purpose diodes that perform many different functions. For example, diodes are used to regulate voltage (Zener diodes), to protect circuits from high voltage surges (avalanche diodes), to electronically tune radio and TV receivers (varactor diodes), to generate radio frequency oscillations (tunnel diodes, Gunn diodes, IMPATT diodes), and to produce light (light emitting diodes). Tunnel diodes exhibit negative resistance, which makes them useful in some types of circuits.

History

Thermionic (vacuum tube) diodes and solid state (semiconductor) diodes were developed separately, at approximately the same time, in the early 1900s, as radio receiver detectors. Until the 1950s vacuum tube diodes were more often used in radios because the early point-contact type semiconductor diodes (cat's-whisker detectors) were less stable, and because most receiving sets had vacuum tubes for amplification that could easily have diodes included in the tube (for example the 12SQ7 double-diode triode), and vacuum tube rectifiers and gas-filled rectifiers handled some high voltage/high current rectification tasks beyond the capabilities of semiconductor diodes (such as selenium rectifiers) available at the time.

Discovery of vacuum tube diodes

In 1873, Frederick Guthrie discovered the basic principle of operation of thermionic diodes.[7] Guthrie discovered that a positively charged electroscope could be discharged by bringing a grounded piece of white-hot metal close to it (but not actually touching it). The same did not apply to a negatively charged electroscope, indicating that the current flow was only possible in one direction.

Thomas Edison independently rediscovered the principle on February 13, 1880. At the time, Edison was investigating why the filaments of his carbon-filament light bulbs nearly always burned out at the positive-connected end. He had a special bulb made with a metal plate sealed into the glass envelope. Using this device, he confirmed that an invisible current flowed from the glowing filament through the vacuum to the metal plate, but only when the plate was connected to the positive supply.

Edison devised a circuit where his modified light bulb effectively replaced the resistor in a DC voltmeter. Edison was awarded a patent for this invention in 1884.[8] Since there was no apparent practical use for such a device at the time, the patent application was most likely simply a precaution in case someone else did find a use for the so-called Edison effect.

About 20 years later, John Ambrose Fleming (scientific adviser to the Marconi Company and former Edison employee) realized that the Edison effect could be used as a precision radio detector. Fleming patented the first true thermionic diode, the Fleming valve, in Britain on November 16, 1904[9] (followed by U.S. Patent 803,684 in November 1905).

Solid-state diodes

In 1874 German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun discovered the "unilateral conduction" of crystals.[10] Braun patented the crystal rectifier in 1899.[11] Copper oxide and selenium rectifiers were developed for power applications in the 1930s.

Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to use a crystal for detecting radio waves in 1894. [12] The crystal detector was developed into a practical device for wireless telegraphy by Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, who invented a silicon crystal detector in 1903 and received a patent for it on November 20, 1906.[13] Other experimenters tried a variety of other substances, of which the most widely used was the mineral galena (lead sulfide). Other substances offered slightly better performance, but galena was most widely used because it had the advantage of being cheap and easy to obtain. The crystal detector in these early crystal radio sets consisted of an adjustable wire point-contact (the so-called "cat's whisker"), which could be manually moved over the face of the crystal in order to obtain optimum signal. This troublesome device was superseded by thermionic diodes by the 1920s, but after high purity semiconductor materials became available, the crystal detector returned to dominant use with the advent of inexpensive fixed-germanium diodes in the 1950s. Bell Labs also developed a germanium diode for microwave reception, and AT&T used these in their microwave towers that criss-crossed the nation starting in the late 1940s, carrying telephone and network television signals. Bell Labs did not develop a satisfactory thermionic diode for microwave reception.

Etymology

At the time of their invention, such devices were known as rectifiers. In 1919, the year tetrodes were invented, William Henry Eccles coined the term diode from the Greek roots di (from δί), meaning "two", and ode (from ὁδός), meaning "path". (However, the word diode itself, as well as triode, tetrode, penthode, hexode, was already in use as a term of multiplex telegraphy; see, for example, The telegraphic journal and electrical review, September 10, 1886, p. 252).

Rectifiers

Although all diodes rectify, the term 'rectifier' is normally reserved for higher currents and voltages than would normally be found in the rectification of lower power signals; examples include:

Thermionic diodes

 

Diode vacuum tube construction

Figure 4: The symbol for an indirect heated vacuum-tube diode. From top to bottom, the components are the anode, the cathode, and the heater filament.

A thermionic diode is a thermionic-valve device (also known as a vacuum tube, tube, or valve), consisting of a sealed evacuated glass envelope containing two electrodes: a cathode heated by a filament, and a plate (anode). Early examples were fairly similar in appearance to incandescent light bulbs.

In operation, a separate current through the filament (heater), a high resistance wire made of nichrome, heats the cathode red hot (800-1000° C), causing it to release electrons into the vacuum, a process called thermionic emission. The cathode is coated with oxides of alkaline earth metals such as barium and strontium oxides, which have a low work function, to increase the number of electrons emitted. (Some valves use direct heating, in which a tungsten filament acts as both heater and cathode.) The alternating voltage to be rectified is applied between the cathode and the concentric plate electrode. When the plate has a positive voltage with respect to the cathode, it electrostatically attracts the electrons from the cathode, so a current of electrons flows through the tube from cathode to plate. However when the polarity is reversed and the plate has a negative voltage, no current flows, because the cathode electrons are not attracted to it. The unheated plate does not emit any electrons itself. So current can only flow through the tube in one direction, from cathode to plate.

In a mercury-arc valve, an arc forms between a refractory conductive anode and a pool of liquid mercury acting as cathode. Such units were made with ratings up to hundreds of kilowatts, and were important in the development of HVDC power transmission. Some types of smaller thermionic rectifiers sometimes had mercury vapor fill to reduce their forward voltage drop and to increase current rating over thermionic hard-vacuum devices.

Throughout the vacuum tube era, valve diodes were used in analog signal applications and as rectifiers in DC power supplies in consumer electronics such as radios, televisions, and sound systems. They were replaced in power supplies beginning in the 1940s by selenium rectifiers and then by semiconductor diodes by the 1960s. Today they are still used in a few high power applications where their ability to withstand transients and their robustness gives them an advantage over semiconductor devices. The recent (2012) resurgence of interest among audiophiles and recording studios in old valve audio gear such as guitar amplifiers and home audio systems has provided a market for the legacy consumer diode valves.

Semiconductor diodes

Electronic symbols

The symbol used for a semiconductor diode in a circuit diagram specifies the type of diode. There are alternate symbols for some types of diodes, though the differences are minor.

Diode