Zener Diode Theory & Operation

The theory and operation behind the Zener diode are particularly interesting and provide insight into the characteristics of the diode.

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How a Zener diode works

The Zener diode is particularly interesting in the way that it operates. There are actually two mechanisms that can cause the breakdown effect that is used to provide the voltage reference effect:

  • Zener breakdown:   Although the physics behind the effect is quite complicated, it can be considered that this effect occurs when the electric field within the semiconductor crystal lattice is sufficiently high to pull electrons out of the lattice to create a hole and electron. The electron then moves under the influence of the field to provide an electric current.
  • Impaction ionisation:   Again this effect occurs when there is a high level of electric field. Electrons are strongly attracted and move towards the positive potential. In view of the high electric field their velocity increases, and often these high energy electrons will collide with the semiconductor lattice. When this occurs an electron may be released, leaving a hole. This newly freed electron then moves towards the positive voltage and is accelerated under the high electric field, and it to may collide with the lattice. The hole, being positively charged moves in the opposite direction to the electron. If the field is sufficiently strong sufficient numbers of collisions occur so that an effect known as avalanche breakdown occurs. This happens only when a specific field is exceeded, i.e. when a certain reverse voltage is exceeded for that diode, making it conduct in the reverse direction for a given voltage, just what is required for a voltage reference diode.

It is found that of the two effects the Zener effect predominates above about 5.5 volts whereas impact ionisation is the major effect below this voltage.

The two effects are affected by temperature variations. This means that the Zener diode voltage may vary as the temperature changes. It is found that the impact ionisation and Zener effects have temperature coefficient in opposite directions. As a result Zener diodes with reverse voltages of around 5.5 volts where the two effects occur almost equally have the most stable overall temperature coefficient as they tend to balance each other out for the optimum performance.

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