What Are Zener Diodes and Their Applications

Posted on September 16, 2022 Michael Jones Electronics

Diodes are components often found in circuits of all types, serving to restrict the flow of current in a single direction. While they are generally reliable, they can become faulty in instances where their breakdown voltage is exceeded, resulting in current flowing in the opposite direction from what is intended. With a specialized type of diode known as a Zener diode, standard operations remain the same as current is allowed to flow freely in the forward biased direction during typical conditions. However, they have a designed voltage threshold known as the Zener voltage, and when this threshold is surpassed, current may flow freely in the reverse-biased direction without damage. With this special capability, Zener diodes find uses that extend past the conventional applications that standard diodes serve.

One of the most common applications for Zener diodes is as a simple voltage regulator, and Zener diodes are arranged in series with a resistor in such instances. This ensures that voltage is only able to flow through the output when conditions surpass the breakdown voltage, allowing it to optimally serve as a regulator. If the Zender diode and resistor were to be switched in the circuit, the diode would then act as a voltage shifter instead. This means that the voltage output is lowered in accordance with the Zener voltage to enact more control in a circuit as needed.
These are not the only possible roles and configurations that Zener diodes can undertake, as there are other ways in which they may be implemented. For example, two Zener diodes placed back-to-back in a voltage regulator circuit will create what is known as a waveform clipper. With this circuit design, any oscillating signal will be prevented from surpassing the Zener voltage in both the positive and negative directions. This causes an oscillation where the top and bottom of the signal is considered “clipped off.” It is important to note that depending on the voltage of the signal, there may be instances where the output may vary to some extent from the input voltage. As such, if an application demands extreme precision or control, using two Zener diodes as a waveform clipper may not be the best possible option on the market. If this is not an issue, the waveform clippers made through the use of Zener diodes may be a better bet.
Not all Zener diodes are made alike, as their characteristics will come down to the doping of their p-n junction. Additionally, the depletion region will be quite thin once formed, while the electric field is very high as a result. This property allows for electrons to tunnel from the p-type material’s valence band to the n-type material’s conduction band. Due to the way that construction affects the operations of Zener diodes, the breakdown voltage is directly tied to the doping process, and controlling this properly during doping is very accurate when done correctly.
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