A zener diode is a special kind of diode which allows current to flow in the forward direction in the same manner as an ideal diode, but will also permit it to flow in the reverse direction when the voltage is above a certain value known as the breakdown voltage, “zener knee voltage” or “zener voltage.” The device was named after Clarence Zener, who discovered this electrical property. Many diodes described as “zener” diodes rely instead on avalanche breakdown as the mechanism. Both types are used. Common applications include providing a reference voltage for voltage regulators, or to protect other semiconductor devices from momentary voltage pulses. A Zener Diode is a special kind of diode which permits current to flow in the forward direction as normal, but will also allow it to flow in the reverse direction when the voltage is above a certain value – the breakdown voltage known as the Zener voltage.
The Zener voltage of a standard diode is high, but if a reverse current above that value is allowed to pass through it, the diode is permanently damaged. Zener diodes are designed so that their zener voltage is much lower – for example just 2.4 Volts. When a reverse current above the Zener voltage passes through a Zener diode, there is a controlled breakdown which does not damage the diode. The voltage drop across the Zener diode is equal to the Zener voltage of that diode no matter how high the reverse bias voltage is above the Zener voltage.
The illustration above shows this phenomenon in a Current vs. Voltage graph. With a zener diode connected in the forward direction, it behaves exactly the same as a standard diode – i.e. a small voltage drop of 0.3 to 0.7V with current flowing through pretty much unrestricted. In the reverse direction however there is a very small leakage current between 0V and the Zener voltage – i.e. just a tiny amount of current is able to flow. Then, when the voltage reaches the breakdown voltage (Vz), suddenly current can flow freely through it.
“Zener Diodes are available at Mouser Electronics from industry leading manufacturers. Mouser is an authorized distributor for many zener diode manufacturers including Central Semiconductor, Diodes Inc, Microsemi, Nexperia, ON Semiconductor, Taiwan Semiconductor, Vishay, & more”.
Uses of Zener Diodes
Since the voltage dropped across a Zener Diode is a known and fixed value, Zener diodes are typically used to regulate the voltage in electric circuits. Using a resistor to ensure that the current passing through the Zener diode is at least 5mA (0.005 Amps), the circuit designer knows that the voltage drop across the diode is exactly equal to the Zener voltage of the diode.