A zener diode is a unique diode that 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".
Zener diode shown with typical packages. Reverse current is shown -iZ is shown
A conventional solid-state diode will not allow significant current if it is reverse-biased below its reverse breakdown voltage. When the reverse bias breakdown voltage is exceeded, a conventional diode is subject to high current due to avalanche breakdown. Unless this current is limited by circuitry, the diode will be permanently damaged due to overheating. A zener diode exhibits almost the same properties, except the device is specially designed so as to have a greatly reduced breakdown voltage, the so-called zener voltage. By contrast with the conventional device, a reverse-biased zener diode will exhibit a controlled breakdown and allow the current to keep the voltage across the zener diode close to the zener breakdown voltage. For example, a diode with a zener breakdown voltage of 3.2 V will exhibit a voltage drop of very nearly 3.2 V across a wide range of reverse currents. The zener diode is therefore ideal for applications such as the generation of a reference voltage (e.g. for an amplifier stage), or as a voltage stabilizer for low-current applications.
Current-voltage characteristic of a zener diode with a breakdown voltage of 17 volts. Notice the change of voltage scale between the forward biased (positive) direction and the reverse biased (negative) direction
Another mechanism that produces a similar effect is the avalanche effect as in the avalanche diode. The two types of diode are in fact constructed the same way and both effects are present in diodes of this type. In silicon diodes up to about 5.6 volts, the zener effect is the predominant effect and shows a marked negative temperature coefficient. Above 5.6 volts, the avalanche effect becomes predominant and exhibits a positive temperature coefficient.
In a 5.6 V diode, the two effects occur together and their temperature coefficients nearly cancel each other out, thus the 5.6 V diode is the component of choice in temperature-critical applications. Modern manufacturing techniques have produced devices with voltages lower than 5.6 V with negligible temperature coefficients, but as higher voltage devices are encountered, the temperature coefficient rises dramatically. A 75 V diode has 10 times the coefficient of a 12 V diode.
Such diodes, regardless of breakdown voltage, are usually marketed under the umbrella term of "zener diode".
Zener diodes are widely used as voltage references and as shunt regulators to regulate the voltage across small circuits. When connected in parallel with a variable voltage source so that it is reverse biased, a zener diode conducts when the voltage reaches the diode's reverse breakdown voltage. From that point on, the relatively low impedance of the diode keeps the voltage across the diode at that value.
In this circuit, a typical voltage reference or regulator, an input voltage, UIN, is regulated down to a stable output voltage UOUT. The breakdown voltage of diode D is stable over a wide current range and holds UOUT relatively constant even though the input voltage may fluctuate over a fairly wide range. Because of the low impedance of the diode when operated like this, resistor R is used to limit current through the circuit.
In the case of this simple reference, the current flowing in the diode is determined using Ohm's law and the known voltage drop across the resistor R;
IDiode = (UIN - UOUT) / R The value of R must satisfy two conditions:
1. R must be small enough that the current through D keeps D in reverse breakdown. The value of this current is given in the data sheet for D. For example, the common BZX79C5V6 device, a 5.6 V 0.5 W zener diode, has a recommended reverse current of 5 mA. If insufficient current exists through D, then UOUT will be unregulated, and less than the nominal breakdown voltage (this differs to voltage regulator tubes where the output voltage will be higher than nominal and could rise as high as UIN). When calculating R, allowance must be made for any current through the external load, not shown in this diagram, connected across UOUT.
2. R must be large enough that the current through D does not destroy the device. If the current through D is ID, its breakdown voltage VB and its maximum power dissipation PMAX, then IDVB < PMAX
A load may be placed across the diode in this reference circuit, and as long as the zener stays in reverse breakdown, the diode will provide a stable voltage source to the load. Zener diodes in this configuration are often used as stable references for more advanced voltage regulator circuits.
Shunt regulators are simple, but the requirements that the ballast resistor be small enough to avoid excessive voltage drop during worst-case operation (low input voltage concurrent with high load current) tends to leave a lot of current flowing in the diode much of the time, making for a fairly wasteful regulator with high quiescent power dissipation, only suitable for smaller loads.
These devices are also encountered, typically in series with a base-emitter junction, in transistor stages where selective choice of a device centered around the avalanche or zener point can be used to introduce compensating temperature co-efficient balancing of the transistor PN junction. An example of this kind of use would be a DC error amplifier used in a regulated power supply circuit feedback loop system.
Zener diodes are also used in surge protectors to limit transient voltage spikes.
Another notable application of the zener diode is the use of noise caused by its avalanche breakdown in a random number generator that never repeats.