Tutorial 4 - Diodes


Diodes are one-way electrical valves that allow current to flow in one direction only.

Knowledge of diode action is not essential, but it will help you to understand the action of diodes and transistors.  This is covered in the extension material

Consider these two circuits:

In circuit A the diode is forward-biased so the current flows and the motor will turn.


Question 1

Complete the gap-fill exercise



The diagram below shows the four main kinds of diode:

Diodes are made from semi-conductor materials like silicon and germanium.



Voltage Characteristic of the Diode

The pictures show an experiment to plot the voltage-current characteristic for a semi-conductor diode.

The circuit diagram is shown:

The voltage and current can be recorded for the forward biased diode. We can turn the diode round for the reverse biased diode.

A forward biased diode starts to conduct at the junction voltage (for silicon, about 0.6 V). A small increase in the forward voltage leads to a large increase in forward current.

Here is the characteristic graph from an actual experiment:

If we show the reverse biased  characteristic as well, we see:


If we reverse the voltage, we get a tiny leakage current of no more than a few micro-amps. At a certain voltage, anything from 10 V to 2000 V, depending on the doping, the insulation of the barrier layer breaks down suddenly and a sudden increase in current occurs. The breakdown voltage is the voltage at which this happens. In many diodes, this would result in burn-out.

Germanium diodes switch on at 2.2 V and the breakdown voltage is about 100 V.


Question 2

Complete the gap-fill exercise



Light Emitting Diode

The light emitting diode (LED) has replaced indicator lamps in many devices.  In recent years LEDs have been used in torches and domestic lighting.  They last a lot longer than filament lamps and use a lot less electrical energy. 


Additionally the light from LED domestic lamps is more pleasant than the light from fluorescent low-energy bulbs.

The forward voltage is about 2.2 V. The characteristic is shown below.



Notice that the graph is a little wobbly, and a smoothed out curve is added. A better curve would have been obtained by repeating the readings and taking an average.

The voltage current characteristic of the LED has a similar shape to the graph of the ordinary diode. The LED can only tolerate a small reverse voltage. A reverse voltage of 20 V will destroy an LED.

It is very easy to ruin LEDs with currents in excess of 30 mA. To prevent this we put a current limiting resistor in series with the LED.  Failure to do so can make the LED explode.

Worked Example

The LED can only handle a current of 10 milliamps before it risks heating up. The voltage drop is 2.2 V. If the LED is connected to a 20 V supply, what value resistor should we place in series?

We know two things about a series circuit:

  • The current is the same all the way round;

  • The voltages add up.

So we can say that the current through the series resistor will be 10 mA.

We know the voltage across the LED = 2.2 V

Therefore we can say that the voltage across the series resistor is 20 - 2.2 = 17.8 volt

Remember that 10 milliamps = 0.01 amp.

So we now work out the resistance with R = V/I = 17.8 volts ÷ 0.01 = 1780 ohms.


Question 3

An LED with a forward biased voltage of 3.4 V is to be used with a 12 V supply.  It can handle a maximum forward current of 15 mA before it gets damaged.  Calculate the value of the current limiting resistor that is needed to stop it being damaged.  Then find the most suitable resistor from the E24 series that will ensure that the LED glows brightly but does not risk being damaged.



Zener Diode

The circuit is used to investigate the Zener diode.


The graph shows the characteristic for a Zener diode from an actual experiment.


Notice that the zero point is in the middle of the two sets of batteries. The top set provides a positive potential difference, while the bottom set provides a negative potential difference. You could use this arrangement for any diode.


The Zener diode is designed to be used in a reverse biased configuration. Its behaviour is very like an ordinary diode in forward-bias, but a typical reverse-biased breakdown voltage is –5.6 V, and there is a very rapid rise in current.

In its reverse biased configuration, the zener diode will hold the output voltage at a constant 5.6 V. It can be described as a voltage clamp. If the voltage is above 5.6 V, a current will flow through the diode, which results in the voltage being held at 5.6 V. Zener diodes are used as simple voltage regulators.


The graph shows how diode limits the voltage, which remains steady at 5.6 volts while a small current is taken. The Zener diode can only take a limited current, and requires a current limiting resistor.

Calculating the value of the current limiting resistor is done in the same way as the LED.


Question 4

A Zener diode can carry a maximum current of 10 mA at its breakdown voltage of 5.6 V. It is connected to a 12 volt supply. What must be the value of the series protection resistor if the diode is not to be burned out?



Data Sheets

We often refer to data sheets that are found in retailers’ catalogues. As well as price, we might get data on:

Here are some data for some high power diodes from a catalogue:



Break down Voltage (V)

Minimum Current (A)

Maximum Current (A)

Maximum Temperature (oC)

Case style

Price (£)

SKN2.5 04







SKN2.5 12







16FR 40






















Question 5

Match the different diodes with their uses


Diodes are used a lot in rectification.  We will look at that more closely in Power Supplies.




Self Test