Avalanche diode

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Avalanche diode
Type Passive
Working principle Avalanche breakdown

In electronics, an avalanche diode is a diode (made from silicon or other semiconductor) that is designed to experience avalanche breakdown at a specified reverse bias voltage. The junction of an avalanche diode is designed to prevent current concentration and resulting hot spots, so that the diode is undamaged by the breakdown. The avalanche breakdown is due to minority carriers accelerated enough to create ionization in the crystal lattice, producing more carriers which in turn create more ionization. Because the avalanche breakdown is uniform across the whole junction, the breakdown voltage is nearly constant with changing current when compared to a non-avalanche diode. [1]

Diode electronic component

A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction ; it has low resistance in one direction, and high resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. 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. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are used.

Silicon Chemical element with atomic number 14

Silicon is a chemical element with symbol Si and atomic number 14. It is a hard and brittle crystalline solid with a blue-grey metallic lustre; and it is a tetravalent metalloid and semiconductor. It is a member of group 14 in the periodic table: carbon is above it; and germanium, tin, and lead are below it. It is relatively unreactive. Because of its high chemical affinity for oxygen, it was not until 1823 that Jöns Jakob Berzelius was first able to prepare it and characterize it in pure form. Its melting and boiling points of 1414 °C and 3265 °C respectively are the second-highest among all the metalloids and nonmetals, being only surpassed by boron. Silicon is the eighth most common element in the universe by mass, but very rarely occurs as the pure element in the Earth's crust. It is most widely distributed in dusts, sands, planetoids, and planets as various forms of silicon dioxide (silica) or silicates. More than 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen.

A semiconductor material has an electrical conductivity value falling between that of a metal, like copper, gold, etc. and an insulator, such as glass. Their resistance decreases as their temperature increases, which is behaviour opposite to that of a metal. Their conducting properties may be altered in useful ways by the deliberate, controlled introduction of impurities ("doping") into the crystal structure. Where two differently-doped regions exist in the same crystal, a semiconductor junction is created. The behavior of charge carriers which include electrons, ions and electron holes at these junctions is the basis of diodes, transistors and all modern electronics. Some examples of semiconductors are silicon, germanium, and gallium arsenide. After silicon, gallium arsenide is the second most common semiconductor used in laser diodes, solar cells, microwave frequency integrated circuits, and others. Silicon is a critical element for fabricating most electronic circuits.


The Zener diode exhibits an apparently similar effect in addition to Zener breakdown. Both effects are present in any such diode, but one usually dominates the other. Avalanche diodes are optimized for avalanche effect so they exhibit small but significant voltage drop under breakdown conditions, unlike Zener diodes that always maintain a voltage higher than breakdown. This feature provides better surge protection than a simple Zener diode and acts more like a gas discharge tube replacement. Avalanche diodes have a small positive temperature coefficient of voltage, where diodes relying on the Zener effect have a negative temperature coefficient. [2]

Zener diode diode that allows current to flow in the reverse direction

A Zener diode is a particular type of diode that, unlike a normal one, allows current to flow not only from its anode to its cathode, but also in the reverse direction, when the Zener voltage is reached.


Avalanche diode current vs. voltage characteristic. V-a characteristic Zener diode.svg
Avalanche diode current vs. voltage characteristic.

Voltage reference

The voltage after breakdown varies only slightly with changing current. This makes the avalanche diode useful as a type of voltage reference. Voltage reference diodes rated more than about 5.5 volts are generally avalanche diodes.

A voltage reference is an electronic device that ideally produces a fixed (constant) voltage irrespective of the loading on the device, power supply variations, temperature changes, and the passage of time. Voltage references are used in power supplies, analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, and other measurement and control systems. Voltage references vary widely in performance; a regulator for a computer power supply may only hold its value to within a few percent of the nominal value, whereas laboratory voltage standards have precisions and stability measured in parts per million.


A common application is to protect electronic circuits against damaging high voltages. The avalanche diode is connected to the circuit so that it is reverse-biased. In other words, its cathode is positive with respect to its anode. In this configuration, the diode is non-conducting and does not interfere with the circuit. If the voltage increases beyond the design limit, the diode goes into avalanche breakdown, causing the harmful voltage to be conducted to ground. When used in this fashion, they are often referred to as clamping diodes or transient voltage suppressors because they fix or "clamp" the maximum voltage to a predetermined level. Avalanche diodes are normally specified for this role by their clamping voltage VBR and the maximum amount of transient energy they can absorb, specified by either energy (in joules) or . Avalanche breakdown is not destructive as long as the diode is prevented from overheating.

Electronic circuit electrical circuit with active components such as transistors, valves and integrated circuits; electrical network that contains active electronic components, generally nonlinear and require complex design and analysis tools

An electronic circuit is composed of individual electronic components, such as resistors, transistors, capacitors, inductors and diodes, connected by conductive wires or traces through which electric current can flow. To be referred to as electronic, rather than electrical, generally at least one active component must be present. The combination of components and wires allows various simple and complex operations to be performed: signals can be amplified, computations can be performed, and data can be moved from one place to another.

Overvoltage when the voltage in a circuit is raised above its upper design limit

When the voltage in a circuit or part of it is raised above its upper design limit, this is known as overvoltage. The conditions may be hazardous. Depending on its duration, the overvoltage event can be transient—a voltage spike—or permanent, leading to a power surge.

A cathode is the electrode from which a conventional current leaves a polarized electrical device. This definition can be recalled by using the mnemonic CCD for Cathode Current Departs. A conventional current describes the direction in which positive charges move. Electrons have a negative electrical charge, so the movement of electrons is opposite to that of the conventional current flow. Consequently, the mnemonic cathode current departs also means that electrons flow into the device's cathode from the external circuit.

RF noise generation

Avalanche diodes generate radio frequency noise. They are commonly used as noise sources in radio equipment and hardware random number generators. For instance, they are often used as a source of RF for antenna analyzer bridges. Avalanche diodes can also be used as white noise generators.

Radio frequency (RF) is the oscillation rate of an alternating electric current or voltage or of a magnetic, electric or electromagnetic field or mechanical system in the frequency range from around twenty thousand times per second to around three hundred billion times per second. This is roughly between the upper limit of audio frequencies and the lower limit of infrared frequencies; these are the frequencies at which energy from an oscillating current can radiate off a conductor into space as radio waves. Different sources specify different upper and lower bounds for the frequency range.

Hardware random number generator device that generates random numbers from physical processes, rather than by means of an software algorithm

In computing, a hardware random number generator (HRNG) or true random number generator (TRNG) is a device that generates random numbers from a physical process, rather than by means of an algorithm. Such devices are often based on microscopic phenomena that generate low-level, statistically random "noise" signals, such as thermal noise, the photoelectric effect, involving a beam splitter, and other quantum phenomena. These stochastic processes are, in theory, completely unpredictable, and the theory's assertions of unpredictability are subject to experimental test. This is in contrast to the common paradigm of pseudo-random number generation commonly implemented in computer programs or cryptographic hardware.

Antenna analyzer

An antenna analyzer or in British aerial analyser is a device used for measuring the input impedance of antenna systems in radio electronics applications.

Microwave frequency generation

If placed into a resonant circuit, avalanche diodes can act as negative resistance devices. The IMPATT diode is an avalanche diode optimized for frequency generation.

Negative resistance

In electronics, negative resistance (NR) is a property of some electrical circuits and devices in which an increase in voltage across the device's terminals results in a decrease in electric current through it.

An IMPATT diode is a form of high-power semiconductor diode used in high-frequency microwave electronics devices. They have negative resistance and are used as oscillators and amplifiers at microwave frequencies. They operate at frequencies of about 3 and 100 GHz, or higher. The main advantage is their high-power capability; single IMPATT diodes can produce continuous microwave outputs of up to 3 kilowatts, and pulsed outputs of much higher power. These diodes are used in a variety of applications from low-power radar systems to proximity alarms. A major drawback of IMPATT diodes is the high level of phase noise they generate. This results from the statistical nature of the avalanche process.

Single-photon avalanche detector

These are made from doped silicon and depend on the avalanche breakdown effect to detect even single photons. The silicon avalanche photodiode is a high gain photon detector. They are "...ideal for use in high speed, low light level applications". [3] The avalanche photodiode is operated with a reverse bias voltage of up to hundreds of volts, slightly below its breakdown voltage. In this regime, electron hole pairs generated by the incident photons take a large amount of energy from the electric field, which creates more secondary charge carriers. The photocurrent of just one photon can be registered with these electronic devices.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Photodiode type of photodetector based on a p-n-junction

A photodiode is a semiconductor device that converts light into an electrical current. The current is generated when photons are absorbed in the photodiode. Photodiodes may contain optical filters, built-in lenses, and may have large or small surface areas. Photodiodes usually have a slower response time as their surface area increases. The common, traditional solar cell used to generate electric solar power is a large area photodiode.

Schottky diode semiconductor diode formed by the junction of a semiconductor with a metal, semiconductor diode with a low forward voltage drop

The Schottky diode, also known as Schottky barrier diode or hot-carrier diode, is a semiconductor diode formed by the junction of a semiconductor with a metal. It has a low forward voltage drop and a very fast switching action. The cat's-whisker detectors used in the early days of wireless and metal rectifiers used in early power applications can be considered primitive Schottky diodes.

Avalanche photodiode highly sensitive semiconductor electronic device

An avalanche photodiode (APD) is a highly sensitive semiconductor electronic device that exploits the photoelectric effect to convert light to electricity. APDs can be thought of as photodetectors that provide a built-in first stage of gain through avalanche multiplication. From a functional standpoint, they can be regarded as the semiconductor analog of photomultipliers. By applying a high reverse bias voltage, APDs show an internal current gain effect due to impact ionization. However, some silicon APDs employ alternative doping and beveling techniques compared to traditional APDs that allow greater voltage to be applied before breakdown is reached and hence a greater operating gain. In general, the higher the reverse voltage, the higher the gain. Among the various expressions for the APD multiplication factor (M), an instructive expression is given by the formula

Transient-voltage-suppression diode electronic component , power diode

A transient-voltage-suppression (TVS) diode, also transil or thyrector, is an electronic component used to protect electronics from voltage spikes induced on connected wires.

Tunnel diode type of semiconductor diode

A tunnel diode or Esaki diode is a type of semiconductor diode that has negative resistance due to the quantum mechanical effect called tunneling. It was invented in August 1957 by Leo Esaki, Yuriko Kurose, and Takashi Suzuki when they were working at Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, now known as Sony. In 1973, Esaki received the Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly with Brian Josephson, for discovering the electron tunneling effect used in these diodes. Robert Noyce independently devised the idea of a tunnel diode while working for William Shockley, but was discouraged from pursuing it. Tunnel diodes were first manufactured by Sony in 1957, followed by General Electric and other companies from about 1960, and are still made in low volume today.

Single-photon avalanche diode solid-state photodetector

A single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) is a solid-state photodetector in which a photon-generated carrier can trigger a short-duration but relatively large avalanche current. This avalanche is created through a mechanism called impact ionization, whereby carriers are accelerated to high kinetic energies through a large potential gradient (voltage). If the kinetic energy of a carrier is sufficient further carriers are liberated from the atomic lattice. The number of carriers thus increases exponentially from, in some cases, as few as a single carrier. This mechanism was observed and modeled by John Townsend for trace-gas vacuum tubes, becoming known as a Townsend discharge, and later being attributed to solid-state breakdown by K. McAfee. This device is able to detect low-intensity ionizing radiation, including: gamma, X-ray, beta, and alpha-particle radiation along with electromagnetic signals in the UV, Visible and IR. SPADs are also able to distinguish the arrival times of events (photons) with a timing jitter of a few tens of picoseconds.

Breakdown voltage

The breakdown voltage of an insulator is the minimum voltage that causes a portion of an insulator to become electrically conductive.

Photodetector sensors of light or other electromagnetic energy

Photodetectors, also called photosensors, are sensors of light or other electromagnetic radiation. A photo detector has a p–n junction that converts light photons into current. The absorbed photons make electron–hole pairs in the depletion region. Photodiodes and photo transistors are a few examples of photo detectors. Solar cells convert some of the light energy absorbed into electrical energy.

Avalanche breakdown is a phenomenon that can occur in both insulating and semiconducting materials. It is a form of electric current multiplication that can allow very large currents within materials which are otherwise good insulators. It is a type of electron avalanche. The avalanche process occurs when carriers in the transition region are accelerated by the electric field to energies sufficient to create mobile or free electron-hole pairs via collisions with bound electrons.

Impact ionization

Impact ionization is the process in a material by which one energetic charge carrier can lose energy by the creation of other charge carriers. For example, in semiconductors, an electron with enough kinetic energy can knock a bound electron out of its bound state and promote it to a state in the conduction band, creating an electron-hole pair. For carriers to have sufficient kinetic energy a sufficiently large electric field must be applied, in essence requiring a sufficiently large voltage but not necessarily a large current.

Diode logic constructs Boolean logic gates from diodes acting

Diode logic (DL), or diode-resistor logic (DRL), is the construction of Boolean logic gates from diodes. Diode logic was used extensively in the construction of early computers, where semiconductor diodes could replace bulky and costly active vacuum tube elements. The most common use for diode logic is in diode–transistor logic (DTL) integrated circuits that, in addition to diodes, include inverter logic for power gain and signal restoration.

LED circuit Electrical circuit involving a light emitting diode

In electronics, an LED circuit or LED driver is an electrical circuit used to power a light-emitting diode (LED). The circuit must provide sufficient current to light the LED at the required brightness, but must limit the current to prevent damaging the LED. The voltage drop across an LED is approximately constant over a wide range of operating current; therefore, a small increase in applied voltage greatly increases the current. Very simple circuits are used for low-power indicator LEDs. More complex, current source circuits are required when driving high-power LEDs for illumination to achieve correct current regulation.

A noise figure meter is an instrument for measuring the noise figure of an amplifier, mixer, or similar device. An example instrument is the 1983-era Agilent 8970A.

Noise generator

A noise generator is a circuit that produces electrical noise. Noise generators are used to test signals for measuring noise figure, frequency response, and other parameters. Noise generators are also used for generating random numbers.

Zener effect

In electronics, the Zener effect is a type of electrical breakdown, discovered by Clarence Melvin Zener. It occurs in a reverse biased p-n diode when the electric field enables tunneling of electrons from the valence to the conduction band of a semiconductor, leading to a large number of free minority carriers which suddenly increase the reverse current.


  1. L. W. Turner, (ed.), Electronics Engineer's Reference Book, 4th Edition, Newnes, 1976 pages 8-9 to 8-10
  2. Jacob Millman Microelectronics, McGraw-Hill, 1979 ISBN   0-07-042327-X, pp. 45-47
  3. Advanced Photonix, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-12-21. Retrieved 2011-12-10.