Varactor Diode or Varicap Diode

The varicap diode or varactor diode provides a way or having a voltage controlled variable capacitance in a circuit.

Varactor / Varicap Diode Tutorial Includes:
Varactor / varicap     Abrupt & hyperabrupt varactors     Varactor specifications (datasheet)     Varactor diode circuits    

Other diodes: Diode types    

Varactor or varicap diodes are used mainly in radio frequency (RF) circuits to be able to provide a capacitance that can be varied by changing a voltage in an electronics circuit. This can be used for tuning circuits including radio frequency oscillators and filters.

Although both names: varactor and varicap diode are used, they are both the same form of diode. The name varactor meaning variable reactor, or reactance, and varicap meaning variable capacitance (vari-cap).

Varactor diode applications

Varactor diodes are widely used within RF circuits. They provide a method of varying the capacitance within a circuit by the application of a control voltage. This gives them an almost unique capability and as a result varactor diodes are widely used within the RF industry.

Although varactor diodes or varicap diodes can be used many different circuits, they find uses in two main areas:

  • Voltage controlled oscillators, VCOs:   Voltage controlled oscillators are used in many different circuits. One major area is for the oscillator within phased locked loops. In turn these can be used as FM demodulators or within frequency synthesizers. The varactor diode is a key component within the voltage controlled oscillator.
  • RF filters:   Using varactor diodes makes it possible to tune filters. Tracking filters may be needed in receiver front end circuits where they enable the filters to track the incoming received signal frequency. Again this can be controlled using a control voltage. Typically this might be provided under microprocessor control via a digital to analogue converter.

Operation of a variable capacitor

They key to understanding how a varactor or varicap diode works is to look at what a capacitor is and what can change the capacitance. As can be seen from the diagram below, a capacitor consists of two plates with an insulating dielectric between them.

. . . the capacitance and the amount of charge that can be stored depends on the area of the plates and the distance between them . . . .

Basic concept of a capacitor

The capacitance of the capacitor is dependent upon the area of the plates - the larger the area the greater the capacitance, and also the distance between them - the greater the distance the smaller the level of capacitance.

A reverse biased diode has no current flowing between the P-type area and the N-type area. The N-type region and the P-type regions can conduct electricity, and can be considered to be the two plates, and the region between them - the depletion region is the insulating dielectric. This is exactly the same as the capacitor above.

As with any diode, if the reverse bias is changed so does the size of the depletion region. If the reverse voltage on the varactor or varicap diode is increased, the depletion region of the diode increases and if the reverse voltage on varactor diode is decreased the depletion region narrows. Therefore by changing the reverse bias on the diode it is possible to change the capacitance.

 Change of varactor diode capacitance with reverse bias
Change of varactor diode capacitance with reverse bias

Varactor or varicap circuit symbol

The varactor diode or varicap diode is shown in circuit diagrams or schematics using a symbol that combines the diode and capacitor symbols. In this way it is obvious that it is being used as a variable capacitor rather than a rectifier.

Varactor diode circuit symbol
Varactor diode circuit symbol

When operated in a circuit, it is necessary to ensure the varactor diode remains reverse biased. This means that the cathode will be positive with respect to the anode, i.e. the cathode of the varactor will be more positive than the anode.

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